Lionsgate // 2006 // 96 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // May 17th, 2007
Artist. Humanitarian. National threat.
When John Lennon is remembered today it is predominantly for his music. In particular, people recall the Beatles' unbelievably productive years between 1963 and 1970. However, this represents only a fraction of the musician's life, and there is almost as much passion to be found in Lennon's output in the years following the Beatles break-up than in anything he did with the group. Of course, some of his songs from this period ("Imagine," "Give Peace a Chance," "Marry Xmas (War is Over)") have rightly become standards. There are also popular images of Lennon speaking out against the Vietnam War, singing at peace demonstrations, and wearing that New York City sleeveless t-shirt. Still, many fans probably don't realize how turbulent those years were for Lennon, who was still a citizen of Britain, and only a guest in America. The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a film documenting both Lennon's personal struggles with the Nixon administration, and the greater societal issues affecting the country at the time.
The film excels in two key areas. The first is in interviews. In addition to hearing from close key figures like Yoko Ono and Leon Wildes, Lennon's immigration attorney, there are scores of fellow activists and peaceniks (including establishment figures like George McGovern and Walter Cronkite) to add color to this unique time in American history. Additionally, to their credit, directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld include interviews with some participants who worked against Lennon, including an F.B.I. agent who investigated him and G. Gordon Liddy, one of Richard Nixon's flunkies. Liddy's inclusion is particularly welcome because he provides a sober, if unconvincing, counterpoint to the pervasive arguments made by progressive commentators.
The second boon to the film is landing the rights to Lennon's music. Even stripped down, as he was throughout most of his post-Beatles career, Lennon's songs are electrifying and enliven footage of any montage, be it made up of angry anti-war demonstrations, or Nixon and his minions staring out at them through the window with their beady eyes.
But unfortunately, this great access granted to Leaf and Scheinfeld surely came at a price. Lennon was a complicated man, one who preached peace, but often enjoyed tumultuous relationships with those closest to him, including his first wife, first son, co-writer Paul McCartney, and even at times Yoko herself. Though The U.S. vs. John Lennon covers Lennon's life in the 1970s extensively, there is no mention anywhere of his Lost Weekend or the 18 months in which Lennon and Yoko separated, when Lennon moved out to Los Angeles to drink and make some of the worst music of his career. I am especially curious to know how, or if, their break-up affected the immigration battle. But my guess is that Yoko wasn't interested in discussing this period of her or Lennon's life, and, if there had been mention of it, wouldn't have been involved in this project or made the music available. Though this is understandable on her part, it clearly compromises the integrity of the film. A good documentary's objective should be to portray a truthful representation of its subject, and when this changes to promoting a one-sided portrait, one can't help but wonder what else has been left out. I greatly admire Lennon as a musician and an activist, but I have no illusions that he was a flawless individual who lived an unblemished existence, as this film would almost lead us to believe. And while I find his good works immensely interesting, I am also curious to learn about his faults, in order to better understand the man, one of the greatest, if not the greatest, cultural icons of the previous century.
Another, more minor fault, is that the film goes on a bit longer than necessary. The conclusion of the documentary, recounting Lennon's assassination, is unrelated to his political work or immigration fight and unnecessarily introduces a melancholic note to the production. The filmmakers would have been better served by excising this chapter and inserting any one of the ample deleted scenes, nearly all of which are relevant to the film's theme.
All in all, The U.S. vs. John Lennon is interesting viewing, but far from an objective or exhaustive piece of Lennon's life in the early 1970s. Still, there are some great comments from influential people from the period, and a great score. One could certainly do worse in a documentary.
As for bonus features, Lionsgate has included approximately 10 deleted sections from the movie, varying in length from about one to seven minutes. The most interesting is the short feature on the reaction from Lennon's close associates to the infamous Two Virgins album cover, which featured a picture of John and Yoko in full undress. Quite a pair on that wacky Scouser, indeed.
Review content copyright © 2007 Brendan Babish; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Bonus footage
* DVD-ROM interview with John Lennon and Yoko Ono