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John Lennon doc overvalues hippie rabble-rouser, undervalues the artist

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David Leaf and John Scheinfeld's inept, tiresome new film The U.S. vs. John Lennon depicts John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1971 move to New York City and their subsequent involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement. The couple's status and media importance also led them into relationships with activists such as Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, and Bobby Seale of the Black Panther Party. These uneasy alliances between rock stars and rabble-rousers alarmed then-President Richard Nixon and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who placed Lennon under FBI surveillance. The government also tried to deport Lennon and Ono in 1972, the year Nixon defeated George McGovern for the presidency.

Lennon's anti-war demonstrations may merit a historical footnote in yet another book about the significance of the '60s, but they are wrongly recast as mythic countercultural stands by a parade of talking heads, including McGovern, Gore Vidal, Yoko Ono, and Geraldo Rivera. None of these pundits offers any insights. The only useful head is journalist Robin Blackburn, who correctly points out that Lennon's vague utopian stance was powerful principally because he was an artist and a good interview subject whose "protests" were funny and strange but not terribly cogent -- more conceptual art than political program.

Ironically, Lennon's best music from this time tells a different story. The hoary old hippie anthems "Imagine" and "Give Peace a Chance" are dusted off once more to establish Lennon as a legitimate revolutionary, but the other Lennon music in the film highlights his sarcasm and distrust of all authority. This is most clear when anti-war and draft-protest footage is scored to "Well, Well, Well" and "I Found Out," two numbers from Lennon's 1970 album Plastic Ono Band. These brutal songs condemn mass action in favor of a clear-eyed independence from all things communal and especially political. Yet here they are used, sincerely and mistakenly, as battle cries.

As history, the film is even worse, leaping from 1971 to 1966 to 1970 to 1969 to 1973 in a vain attempt to construct a chain of tangentially related historical events. Rather than illuminating events, such fumbling reinvents history as nostalgia; to claim that Lennon would have made an enormous difference in an election McGovern had already bungled beyond repair is useless ahistorical speculation.

In our current frightening political climate, where government surveillance may soon be a fact of life for everyone, self-congratulatory documentaries like The U.S. vs. John Lennon serve no clear or worthwhile purpose.

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

Opening Friday, October 13th

Studio on the Square

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