Peace of art
The US vs John Lennon ( M) Limited release
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