Peace of art

The US vs John Len­non ( M) Lim­ited re­lease

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Stratton

WHAT­EVER hap­pened to John Win­ston Len­non ( yes, he shared a mid­dle name with our Prime Min­is­ter)? The Bea­tle with the tren­chant sense of hu­mour and the fierce intelligence, whose bit­ing wit re­sulted in some of the best song lyrics since Cole Porter, may never have been adored as much as Paul McCart­ney, but he was still the idol of mil­lions of peo­ple, of all ages, who loved the Bea­tles dur­ing the 1960s.

The group was so whole­some ( com­pared with the Rolling Stones, any­way), and their songs were un­de­ni­ably great. But in 1968 Len­non left his wife Cyn­thia ( we later heard he treated her badly) for Yoko Ono, the rad­i­cal artist who was known at the time ( if at all) for her 1966 film, Num­ber 4 , which con­sisted of noth­ing but naked but­tocks. They mar­ried in 1969 and Len­non un­der­went a trans­for­ma­tion. Per­haps it was Ono’s bale­ful in­flu­ence or per­haps it was the drugs.

The US vs John Len­non, an ex­cel­lent doc­u­men­tary by David Leaf and John Sche­in­feld, at­tempts to ex­plain what hap­pened to Len­non in the last decade of his life, be­fore his mur­der in 1980. His rad­i­cal­i­sa­tion seemed sud­den at the time, but the Viet­nam War rad­i­calised many young peo­ple. When, on May 4, 1970, four un­armed stu­dent anti- war demon­stra­tors, were shot dead by Na­tional Guards­men in the grounds of Kent State Univer­sity in Ohio, the world changed for many.

Len­non and Ono moved to New York the fol­low­ing year and quickly be­came a fo­cal point for rad­i­cal causes. Soon af­ter his ar­rival in Man­hat­tan, Len­non per­formed at a ben­e­fit con­cert in Michi­gan for John Sin­clair, who had just been sen­tenced to a 10- year prison term for giv­ing two mar­i­juana joints to an un­der­cover po­lice­woman. His ap­pear­ance on be­half of Sin­clair is the open­ing scene of the film, and when we learn that the pub­lic out­cry it caused led to Sin­clair’s re­lease two days later, we get some in­di­ca­tion of just how pow­er­ful Len­non was.

The Bea­tles had been the most pop­u­lar singing group in his­tory, and the man many saw as their leader was en­cour­ag­ing young peo­ple to op­pose the US gov­ern­ment. The vot­ing age had been low­ered from 21 to 18 and with a pres­i­den­tial poll due in 1972, the im­pli­ca­tions of teenage vot­ing were enor­mous.

Richard Nixon was seek­ing re- elec­tion, and there seems lit­tle doubt he and the pres­i­dent’s men saw the rad­i­cal Len­non and his pop­u­lar­ity as a wild card they didn’t need. Give Peace a Chance was a Len­non song that be­came the ral­ly­ing cry for the anti- war move­ment.

It was not only his op­po­si­tion to the war that seems to have alarmed Nixon. Len­non went out of his way to make con­tact with AfricanAmer­i­can rad­i­cals. He ap­peared on television hav­ing a cor­dial con­ver­sa­tion with Bobby Seale, a leader of the revo­lu­tion­ary Black Pan­thers, and he also spent time with Ab­bie Hoff­man and Jerry Ru­bin, two of the coun­try’s most fa­mous ac­tivists.

No won­der, then, that J. Edgar Hoover or­dered the FBI to open a dossier on him and, in 1972, pro­ceed­ings were ini­ti­ated to de­port him just as ex­actly 20 years ear­lier the US gov­ern­ment had suc­cess­fully ex­iled an­other pop­u­lar but trou­ble­some English­man, Charles Chap­lin.

At the same time, many of Len­non’s fol­low­ers were so alarmed by what they saw as the ex­treme rad­i­cal­ism of his be­hav­iour that they gave up on him. One un­sym­pa­thetic TV in­ter­viewer in­cluded in this film tells him, in ef­fect, that he’s crazy. And his ac­tions, such as the much- pub­li­cised, muchderided hon­ey­moon ‘‘ bed- in’’ in an Am­s­ter­dam ho­tel, alien­ated many fans.

Leaf and Sche­in­feld have at­tracted a for­mi­da­ble list of talk­ing heads to give per­sonal tes­ti­monies in their film. Among them are An­gela Davis, the black ac­tivist; Carl Bern­stein, the Wash­ing­ton Post jour­nal­ist who, along with col­league Bob Wood­ward, ex­posed the Water­gate scan­dal; Ron Kovic, the Viet­nam vet­eran whose story was told in the film Born on the Fourth of July ; Ge­orge McGovern, the Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Nixon de­feated in 1972; Noam Chom­sky; Nixon’s White House ad­viser, John Dean; and an un­re­pen­tant White House aide and Water­gate bur­glar, G. Gor­don Liddy.

Liddy’s con­tri­bu­tion is es­pe­cially in­ter­est­ing. Like Edith Piaf, he re­grets noth­ing. Of the killings at Kent State, he says the un­armed 18- year- old vic­tims, who in his words ‘‘ caused trou­ble’’ with armed 18- year- old guards­men, were ‘‘ with­out the sense God gave a goose’’.

As for Len­non, this self- styled, work­ing- class hero comes across as gen­uinely pas­sion­ate and mo­ti­vated. He is witty, ar­tic­u­late and unswerving in his calls for an end to the car­nage in South­east Asia. No won­der Nixon and Hoover feared him.

The US vs John Len­non re­minds us what the ’ 70s were like. The songs are from the al­bums Len­non recorded at the time, among them Imag­ine . The home movie footage was sup­plied by Ono, who ob­vi­ously col­lab­o­rated with the film­mak­ers; so per­haps it’s not sur­pris­ing that she comes over more pos­i­tively in this film than she some­times does.

See­ing Len­non with his baby son, Sean, at the end, will be a pow­er­fully mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for many. No at­tempt is made to restage his sense­less mur­der, thank good­ness, but shots are heard on the sound­track as this vi­tal, re­veal­ing doc­u­men­tary comes to a close.

Protest move­ment’s poster peo­ple: Yoko Ono and John Len­non pho­tographed with a plac­ard in Lon­don as part of a cam­paign against the Viet­nam War

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