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'The U.S. vs. John Lennon': A Man Who Dared to Dream

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 29, 2006

One of the weirdest episodes in American history is engagingly chronicled in "The U.S. vs. John Lennon," David Leaf and John Scheinfeld's revelatory documentary about the American government's surveillance of the former Beatle in the 1970s.

And readers tempted to write that episode off as yet another paranoid fantasy of The Left should take heed: "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" includes the firsthand testimony of the spies themselves, from apostate FBI agents to the unapologetic G. Gordon Liddy. It's all there on the record, for the benefit of those who care enough about history not to repeat it. And at a time when the country is engaged in fresh debates about the fragile relationship between privacy and national security, this particular chapter seems worth revisiting.

"The U.S. vs. John Lennon" opens in 1971, when Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, appeared at a fundraising concert for John Sinclair, best known to most music fans as the radical impresario behind the Detroit punk band the MC5. That appearance succeeded in getting Sinclair -- who was serving a 10-year sentence for handing undercover narcotics agents two marijuana joints -- released from jail. But it also brought Lennon straight into the cross hairs of Richard Nixon, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and, eventually, their fellows at the Immigration and Naturalization Service who for more than three years tried to have Lennon deported.

Leaf and Scheinfeld deftly set the stage for Lennon's odyssey through the dark mirror of U.S. political life, looking back to 1966 when the singer-songwriter suggested that the Beatles had become more popular than Jesus in Great Britain -- a comment that quickly traveled 'round the world to become one of the most misquoted and misunderstood observations of an increasingly contentious era. It was the focus of high dudgeon in the American South, where disc jockeys and clergymen encouraged their followers to boycott Beatles records and burn the ones they already owned.

That was an early shot across the bow at a time of breathtaking cultural and political ferment, to which the brilliant, cheekily self-aware Lennon was singularly well-attuned -- and which is brought to vivid life in the archival material the filmmakers have collected. As opposition to the Vietnam War grew in the late 1960s, Lennon and Ono became increasingly outspoken in championing nonviolence, even turning their honeymoon in 1969 into a "bed-in," during which they personalized the political in an alternatively hilarious and earnest plea for peace.

Such agitprop, as recorded by the press, made Lennon and Ono fodder for ridicule, marginalization and dismissal. (There's a fabulous scene of a patronizing New York Times reporter, Gloria Emerson, calling Lennon "my dear boy" as his verbal darts sail right over her head.) But "The U.S. vs. John Lennon" makes a persuasive case that, far from being trivial, Lennon's political performances, protest anthems and talk-show appearances with Yippies and Black Panthers were shining examples of a star manipulating his own myth and expertly exploiting the fame-obsessed media. And because this was Lennon -- unlike so many pop stars with their jeremiads today -- those views were always conveyed with an extra satiric wink or understated semantic flourish.

Leaf and Scheinfeld have enlisted a crowded cast of commentators -- from George McGovern and Mario Cuomo to Bobby Seale and Angela Davis -- who recall Lennon's personal and artistic power, as well as the threat that power posed to the enemy-obsessed Nixon. (As one observer notes, Lennon's was "a frightening voice to people who want to hear 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic' over and over again.")

It's chilling to hear those FBI agents reminisce about pursuing Lennon (not to mention Liddy actually blaming the student victims at Kent State for daring to exercise their First Amendment rights in front of a jittery National Guard). It's infuriating to hear how, after Nixon was safely reinstalled, the FBI backed off only to have the INS start hounding the singer out of the country, under the watchful eye of Nixon's chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman. And it's moving to the point of tears to watch a romantic montage set to Lennon's beatific call to un-arms, "Imagine."

That montage -- mostly composed of images of Lennon and Ono pursuing one of the world's great love affairs -- provides a lyrical reminder of what the world lost when Lennon was assassinated in 1980. Not just the Beatle or the wily provocateur or the activist or even the famous Mr. Mom, but a man who dared to grow and change in public, and thereby to suggest that the public could grow and change, too. It was that contagious audacity that made Lennon so threatening. All he was saying was give peace a chance but, as this smart, deeply affecting film reminds us, in some quarters that's saying way too much.

The U.S. vs. John Lennon (99 minutes, at Landmark's E Street and Bethesda Row) is rated PG-13 for some strong profanity, violent images and drug references.

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