David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s new documentary about John Lennon’s relationship with the US establishment is engrossing, if a little short on revelations. The crimes of Nixon and his cohorts, at home and abroad, were rather greater than their attempt to deny a pop star US citizenship, although it’s clear that the intrigue went right to the top. The U.S. vs John Lennon is an interesting history of a period that has more than a few parallels with the current political climate.
Leaf and Sheinfeld have gathered together an impressive line-up of witnesses to the story, including Carl Bernstein, Noam Chomsky, Walter Cronkite, Gore Vidal, John Dean, Senator George McGovern, G Gordon Liddy (still an unrepentant reactionary) and Ron Kovic of Born on the Fourth of July fame. Yoko Ono, as key a witness as you can get, gets plenty of air time. Among dead participants are Richard Nixon and J Edgar Hoover, and of course there’s lots of input from John himself, with fascinating characters like Bob Haldeman, John Mitchell and Lyndon B Johnson lurking in the background.
This is such an interesting period of American history, although Watergate hardly gets mentioned. Vietnam inevitably looms large, a reminder as if one is needed that foreign military interventions are not a great idea. Kent State University, Martin Luther King and Black Panther all get a look-in, building up a picture of the background to Lennon’s constant peaceful agitation.
It’s impressive seeing John Sinclair, the political activist jailed for nine years for possessing two joints, released by the authorities the morning after a benefit concert at which John and Yoko sang. It also brings home what an impact Lennon’s comments about Jesus Christ had when you see the KKK burning effigies and ordinary citizens smashing and burning Beatles records. Nixon’s 1968 election broadcast is fascinating as a reminder that he came to power on a promise to stop the war.
The singer himself comes over as a man hugely committed to his principles and a bit potty, though not nearly as much as those he opposed. There are the bed-in and the bag-in (the press conference with him and Ono interviewed inside a sack) and endless choruses of “Give peace a chance”.
The central conflict is a bit limited, though. The film leads up to the five-year battle against deportation that Lennon and Ono had with the immigration authorities. A couple of former FBI agents admit to the “horrible” covert activities they were required to carry out against individuals and John talks about having his phone tapped and being followed in the street. But there are no really dirty deeds that come to light in this case, even if the whole thing must have been a bit of an ordeal for those involved.
Lennon clearly was seen as a threat to those in power and the huge publicity he got in the cause of peace, at a time when escalating the war was seen as a political necessity, was undermining the establishment. There’s no hint that they intended him any real harm; they just wanted to get him out of the country to stop him corrupting the nation’s youth, many of whom had just become much more important with the lowering of the age to vote.
So, Nixon was a crook, the war was bad, the establishment was paranoid and John Lennon was an all-round good bloke: it’s a story worth hearing but don’t expect much that’s new. Yoko Ono has said: “Of all the documentaries that have been made about John, this is the one he would have loved”. And that’s not a bad recommendation.