Yoko Ono and John Lennon: Ron Frehm/AP/Wide World Photo
September 13, 2006 at 04:00 AM EDT

The U.S. vs. John Lennon

Current Status
In Season
99 minutes
Limited Release Date
David Leaf, John Scheinfeld
Lions Gate Films
David Leaf, John Scheinfeld
We gave it a B

The U.S. vs. John Lennon is the easy-listening version of a firebrand documentary; nothing in it is as incendiary as its title. In 1971, after he appeared at the rally to free imprisoned White Panther Party leader John Sinclair in Ann Arbor, Mich. (a point of pride — it’s my hometown), John Lennon was targeted by the FBI as a subversive. His phone was tapped, and he was shadowed by agents who let him know he was being watched. When he refused to mute his activism, officials taking orders from the Nixon administration revoked his visa and attempted to kick him out of the country, resulting in a highly public legal battle that Lennon waged for years and ultimately won. None of this is really news. (At the time, it was clear that the immigration authorities decided to target Lennon not because they preferred Paul’s solo work.) The mild fascination of The U.S. vs. John Lennon is that it puts Lennon together as a political animal, examining how his iconoclastic wit and anger turned into conceptual protest when he fused it with the avant-garde theatrics of Yoko Ono. The movie, directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, provides in-depth footage of John and Yoko’s naively endearing publicity-stunt radicalism — the bed-ins for peace; the way that they fought, and courted, the mockery of the press. It also has people like Gore Vidal lionizing Lennon as dangerous — a point that, oddly, buys into the J. Edgar Hoover view. To me, the most potent dimension of The U.S. vs. John Lennon is the way that it captures the contradictory romanticism of Lennon the radical. Once the Beatles bit the dust, he took refuge in causes. Yet with Yoko as his comrade-in-arms, he turned every cause — peace, John Sinclair, the Black Panthers, more peace — into a totem, a signifier of their love. By doing so, he carried the torch of the ’60s and helped extinguish it, too.

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