I was about 14 or 15 when John Lennon and Yoko Ono became cultural heroes to me. Growing up in Tennessee, my main access to them, other than John’s albums of course, was the Dick Cavett Show. I was so entranced by the Cavett interviews that I taped them on my portable audio cassette recorder and transcribed them. (Yes, I was a media nerd even then. Luckily for all of us, those interviews are now available on DVD.)
The heady excitement stirred by that era, even to a teenager in the sticks like me, is brought back vividly by the new documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon, written and directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld. The first half of the movie is especially exhilarating, powered by John’s irrepressible wit and by great footage from the art/media/political stunts he and Yoko carried out (strongly influenced by her innovative and provocative performance art), accompanied by generous excerpts from John’s music (36 songs are used, and they sound as amazing as ever). Also very well told is the story of John and Yoko’s growing association with political radicals viewed by the U.S. establishment as much more alarming than their own gentle form of political theater — people like Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Angela Davis, and the Black Panthers’ Bobby Seale.
Yet once the film moves on to the government harassment that provides the title, it loses some steam. The attempts to tie the political situation of 1969-1972 to the present are not very convincing. Bush is not Nixon, Iraq is not Vietnam. (Of course, Iraq may, in fact, be much worse in some respects. But that doesn’t help this movie make its inapt comparison, which extends to its ad’s tag line: “War Is Over If You Want It.”) And the story of the harassment itself is just not as exciting or entertaining as, say, John and Yoko being interviewed while completely enclosed in a cloth bag, with wonderful Lennon tunes in the background.
The Nixon administration used the pretext of a marijuana conviction in England (framed, John said) to refuse to renew the Lennons’ visas and to try to deport them. But the film attempts to make this more ominous than it was. Of course we’re glad John and Yoko eventually won their court case, but even if they hadn’t, they would simply have had to move back to London and leave New York. There’s one brief recent interview clip in which Yoko claims they thought their lives were in danger, but there is very little, if anything, to back this up. (One aspect of John’s life that goes unmentioned is how all this may have affected his career. He produced basically no new music between 1975 and 1979, concentrating instead on family life. His brief but shattering separation from Yoko is also passed over.)
Nonetheless, this movie serves as an entertaining and emotionally resonant biography of John Lennon, from his childhood to his still-shocking death. The photography, the editing, and the soundtrack are first-rate both technically and creatively – not every documentary is this pleasurable to watch and to listen to. At times during the wonderful first half, I felt like I was 14 again, flying high on music, idealism, and political performance art.