The U.S. vs. John Lennon
The Real Ballad of John and Yoko
As a nominal Beatles fan and dedicated Flower Power scoffer, I found that The U.S. vs. John Lennon provided an abundance of opportunities to gain insight not only into the life and purpose of John Lennon, but the equally mythologized and criticized era in which he made his voice heard. While exploring Lennon’s very public life and protests, filmmakers David Leaf and John Shienfeld also invite the audience to see the context of Lennon’s political voice—a context which, for those of us born post-1960s, is only the romanticized period of the power of the people, or the disdained era of pot-smoking and sexual promiscuity, depending on who’s telling the story. Through innumerable clips of actual footage from the conflict-steeped era, Leaf and Scheinfeld provide the backdrop as well as the (extremely significant) scenery for the story of John Lennon’s life.
There were a few things which struck me as I was exiting the theater, all of which are directly attributable to the accurate and thorough work of Leaf and Scheinfeld. First, I realized how jaded and downright misaligned my opinion of the sixties had been. For me, an ‘80s-era yuppie, the sixties had always seemed silly to me—a time of deliberate rebellion and promiscuity that merely represented a generation that got stuck at age seventeen. My tie-and-jacket history teachers had effectively demonstrated that marijuana and free sex had screwed with an entire generation’s collective brain cells, and reduced them to mindless, vapid activists with no jobs, no education, and nothing better to do than smoke dope and bed the neighborhood. Mission accomplished. While my political views did change radically over the years, my general impression of the era remained relatively the same—an ineffective people protesting ineffectively about a war that was certainly unjust and downright wrong, but wasn’t necessarily worth all the silly falderal and mayhem surrounding it.
But, honestly, in my confessed ignorance, I am grateful to Leaf and Scheinfeld for the principled way in which they collected and arranged the actual footage from those years to paint an accurate and telling picture of the political and social climate that produced a John Lennon. The historical clips they chose to include clearly come from a wide variety of sources, thus representing a wide variety of original goals in their filming. As such, there can be no allegations of gleaning footage only from sources with a certain agenda—and this lends the film a solid credibility in advancing its own cause. Seeing and hearing about the events that didn’t make the nightly news (and therefore didn’t make the high school history textbooks) offered a better, and perhaps even more balanced, representation of the time than anything I ever learned in school or in my straight-laced home.
Secondly, the film cleared up my misperceptions regarding what part Yoko Ono played in Lennon’s life and art. As I discussed the film with my husband, I realized that many of my ideas had been shaped by two ruling opinions of the time: that Yoko broke up the Beatles (and was, therefore, to be despised), and that her relationship with Lennon was just for show—more a business partnership than a marriage. Leaf’s and Shienfeld’s work pretty much blew both of these misguided ideas out of the water. While it may have been true that John’s relationship with Yoko interfered with the Beatles’ progress, effectively “causing” the break-up of the group, the marriage of John and Yoko was definitely based on a true connection—socially, politically, and artistically, as well as personally. Again, the footage Leaf and Scheinfeld chose to include demonstrates the deep connection between the two lovers, pointing out the sincerity of their love and dedication to each other, as well as their intense philosophical and social connection. Yoko’s conceptual art very clearly affected Lennon’s music—there is a definite change in the style from “musical music” to a conceptual art style (think of the numerous repetitive lines in his later music)—and perhaps that change did contribute to the end of the Beatles as a musical group. But it was not an intentional or insidious scheme on Ono’s part—it was a natural progression as Lennon’s political and social views came more and more to bear on his public presence and purpose.
Finally, The U.S. vs. John Lennon offered me a much more comprehensive look at John Lennon himself. While I knew about his activism and the “interesting” music he recorded during the sixties, I had always seen him as one of those misguided and wishy-washy protesters. What I saw in this documentary was a man whose principles were rock-solid, and changed only as he matured, not as the climate changed or the public opinion wavered. His use of his public persona was responsible and sincere, not manipulative or dismissive—he certainly saw his notoriety as a gift and a tool that could be used effectively to communicate with people. His stability inspired me, and his humility surprised me. While he definitely took his music seriously, he never took himself too seriously, often taking moments in interviews to mock others who took single comments of his out of context or gave them too much weight.
Unfortunately, Leaf and Scheinfeld pushed the envelope an inch too far just at the close of the movie, over-dramatizing the untimely and violent death of Lennon, and trying to directly tie his assassination to the government and its previous attempts to deport him. This is unfortunate only because the film is very instructive and revealing and non-manipulative up to this point, and the last five minutes or so leave a decidedly Michael Mooreish bitter taste in one’s mouth. While Lennon’s death was, indeed, tragic and needless, the conspiracy theory turn at the close of the movie actually detracted from the impact, rather than strengthened it.
In short, I found the film incredibly informative and worthwhile. I had little idea how much the U.S. government had been working against Lennon and his efforts, and while I felt truly ignorant in my lack of awareness, I was at least grateful that this film had enlightened me to the long-standing issues between politics and art, and where they “should” and “shouldn’t” meet. I imagine that there are many others out there who would find the film educational as well, whether they lived through the sixties as adults, participated in the protests, or were born well after the fact. The U.S. vs. John Lennon simply does an excellent job of telling the story of John Lennon in its social, political, philosophical, and artistic context, and as such reopens the era for its great potential to teach us today.
The film is rated PG-13 for “some strong language, violent images and drug references.” It certainly is a reminder of how violent and turbulent the 1960s were. But in the same way that a history lesson about the Civil War or the Civil Rights Movement must be disturbing, in a way, in order to be relevant, so also must any film about this subject matter. I doubt that anyone interested in this topic—of whatever age—will at all be put off by the film’s content.This review originally appeared at HollywoodJesus.com.