It is a little difficult to picture a bearded man named John Lennon, sitting in bed with a sign over him declaring ‘Bed Peace,’ as a threat to national security. Yet in the 1970s, this outspoken rock star was labeled as dangerous to the Nixon administration and was quieted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation through attempted deportation under criminal charges. The new documentary ‘The US vs. John Lennon,’ released in 15 cities last Friday, examines this decade of peaceniks and post-Flower Power activists who struggled to end the Vietnam War and make peace a reality in a violent era.
Lennon fought for two years in a case that his own lawyer believed was a hopeless cause, and came out with not only a green card, but also a baby boy, Sean Lennon, on his 35th birthday.
UC Irvine professor of history and the documentary’s history consultant Jon Wiener fought his own legal battle to obtain FBI files on Lennon under the Freedom of Information Act back in 1981. More than 20 years later and with the financial backing of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Wiener was able to secure all but 10 of the 281 pages he requested.
‘According to the FBI, the documents contain national security information provided by a foreign government, and we aren’t even allowed to know which government,’ Wiener said.
His long struggle against the government’s need to keep secrecy ironically brought his story to the attention of many who were interested in making a documentary.
‘The movie was definitely not my idea. After the lawsuit, I got dozens of calls over 10 years with people interested in making documentaries. A lot of them were awful, and most never got made.
‘There were two reasons I worked with [filmmakers] David Leaf and John Scheinfeld. They had won the permission of Yoko Ono to have her be interviewed for the movie. She also held the credits to all of John’s songs, and it would have been hard to make a movie about John Lennon without using his music. I had [also] seen the last film they had made, about Brian Wilson, one of the Beach Boys, on Showtime, and I loved that movie. They did a great job,’ Wiener said.
The documentary starts with a rally concert for John Sinclair, an activist who was arrested for selling marijuana to an undercover agent. Lennon and Ono play one song for the crowd in favor of Sinclair’s innocence and three days later, Sinclair is released. Alarmed by Lennon’s influence on public opinion, the FBI quickly put him on a list and suddenly there was a need to silence the former member of the Beatles. At the time of Nixon’s reelection, 18-year-olds were able to vote for the first time. The crisis is summed up in Wiener’s book ‘Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files,’ which says that, ‘Lennon would urge young people to register to vote, and vote against the war, which meant, of course, against Nixon.’
Wiener’s role as historical consultant meant that he helped the filmmakers find the people they wanted to interview