Last week my father went to see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and was surprised to see people getting up and leaving when the group launched into some of the stuff off Neil Young’s latest album. It was the political music, especially Let’s Impeach the President, that sent them scurrying out of the venue, which makes me have to wonder if they had ever heard anything by CSN&Y that hasn’t been used in a TV commercial.
The sad truth is that we live in a time when Green Day – the band who scored a major hit with a song about jerking off all day – is on the pop music vanguard of speaking out against George W Bush and the War in Iraq. While our nation is more fiercely partisan than before, any art that espouses a partisan position gets drowned out in howls of rage and protest from the other side, as if a point of view is inherently evil. But this wasn’t what the pop culture was always like, and The US vs John Lennon nostalgically looks back to a time when art and protest merged, and when artists fomented revolution and revolution was an artform. And as is always the case with nostalgia, the truth gets lost in a feel-good, rosy haze.
The US vs John Lennon sets out to do two things; it wants to draw parallels between the Bush and Nixon years and it wants to canonize John Lennon. As someone predisposed to see the current regime as the most evil since Tricky Dick’s, the first part came off without a hitch. It was at part two that they lost me.
The film picks up in the aftermath of Lennon’s pronouncement that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus. It was the first indication that the things these mop tops said could cause as much ruckus as the music they made, and the filmmakers believe that this is the moment when Lennon’s larger worldview began to assert itself, where he began to become more political and outspoken.
Lennon was always the rarest of pop stars, a truly brilliant one. And he came to fame at a time when the world was plunging into what seemed like chaos and the boundaries and roles of people – women, minorities, youth, even celebrities – were changing and malleable. The movie sets up the situation in Vietnam and the discontent at home while charting the rise of Lennon’s political involvement. Finally it shows how that involvement got him targeted by the FBI and Nixon as an enemy, and how they underhandedly and illegally used the Immigration and Naturalization Service to try and silence him.
What the film never shows is the real John Lennon. The US vs John Lennon is a complete hagiography, a film that smoothes out every rough edge in Lennon’s life to the point where he’s made into someone who seems terribly uninteresting and naïve, which is an incredible feat for the filmmakers. Lennon was one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century, and it wasn’t just his bed-ins and music that made him that. He was a study in basic human dichotomy, equal parts saint and sinner, good guy and asshole. He made lots of mistakes and did lots of bad things, and that’s what makes him relatable. The US vs John Lennon reminds me of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, with its portrayal of a Jesus who was all about suffering for you and me. What the world needs is a movie like Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, a movie that shows how much like us Christ was. Except that John Lennon was bigger than Jesus, don’t you know.
Anyone who knows about Lennon’s life will find themselves wondering what happened to the Lennon they knew – the film uses the opening of his song Cold Turkey, about quitting heroin, but to illustrate a scene that has nothing to do with drugs. In fact, you could walk away from this movie thinking that Lennon didn’t do much else beside smoke some grass in the 70s and then live with his wife and child until he was murdered, something that just isn’t true. Whitewashing Lennon certainly makes it easier for the audience to be on his side when the INS hijinks starts, but really, the stuff that was pulled was so egregious that it shouldn’t matter if the guy was off in LA getting loaded with Harry Nilsson (which he was). The movie even whitewashes the protest movements of the late 60s, which did move more and more towards violence, something that gets only minor lip service in the film.
But then again, this movie isn’t for me. It’s made for the baby boomers who like to look back at their generation as a bunch of heroes (there’s even a thinly veiled swipe at the modern kids, who aren’t taking to the streets in the numbers that kids did in the 60s – of course the kids in the 60s were living under the specter of the draft, something which made their protests a little more self-serving) and for younger people who aren’t familiar with the period and who may be inspired to go off and get involved. It’s hard to fault a movie that wants to do that, but I think that The US vs John Lennon treads the line of intellectual dishonesty to accomplish that goal.
The movie may also fall a little short of that goal because it drags towards the end. No matter how you spin it, INS proceedings and the legal maneuvering dealing with them just don’t make captivating cinema. And when Nixon gets safely re-elected his administration loses a lot of interest in Lennon, which pokes a pretty big hole in the film’s thesis that Lennon was viewed as a serious threat. It ends up seeming like he was viewed as a major nuisance.
But when the movie is working, it makes you want to get out into the streets and make some noise. Much of the footage is revealing and many of the talking head interviews are fascinating enough that I hope we get more of them on the DVD. Hell, the whole film is worth it just to hear George McGovern singing Give Peace a Chance. Seriously, he does.
What’s fascinating is how many of Lennon’s simple ideas still feel revolutionary. Peace remains an almost impossible concept, and one of the most popular artists in the world speaking out about politics still feels edgy. It’s almost enough to make you despair – has nothing changed in almost forty years? But then there’s something Lennon says in this film, at a massive concert to free John Sinclair (another guy, by the way, who gets whitewashed):
“[A]pathy isn’t it and… we can do something. Okay, so flower power didn’t work; so what? We start again.”
We start again. For all of its flaws, I hope that The US vs John Lennon is a film that can convince one person to start again.