‘U.S.’ Imagines Lennon Through Contemporaries

Ridiculous as it may seem to credit a pop star and his eccentric wife for influencing an entire era of social revolution, that is exactly what a UC Irvine audience saw on Thursday, Jan. 11 during a screening of the film ‘The U.S. vs. John Lennon’ and a Q-and-A with directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld and UCI professor John Wiener, who served as historical consultant on the film, as part of the Film and Video Center’s ongoing Thursday film series. The film is a documentary about former Beatle John Lennon’s life from 1966 to 1976.
The film follows the progression of Lennon’s career from an innocuous boy-band member to a political activist and artist to a purported enemy of the state.
With a combination of vintage news footage, personal interviews and a well-selected playlist of Lennon’s songs, the movie captures both the personal and social crises in the wake of the Vietnam War, the Nixon administration and the rise of the Black Panther Party. ‘We call the movie ‘The U.S. vs. John Lennon’ and what we meant by that was not just what the government was trying to do to him, but what was going on in the country at that time: politically, socially, culturally,’ Scheinfeld said. ‘What was the landscape of America like at that time and what were John and Yoko up against?’
Narrated through a collection of graphic historical images and footage from the private life Lennon shared with his wife, performance artist Yoko Ono, the film tells the story of two quirky underdogs opposing ‘The Man’ in the name of peace and love.
Lennon’s song ‘Give Peace a Chance’ echoed throughout the film as the audience traveled back to a time when even such a simple request produced dangerous consequences.
‘The goal was to have the people who lived the history tell the story,’ the directors said. The film uses a variety of famous faces, from Noam Chomsky to Walter Cronkite to Bobby Seale. By portraying Lennon’s own tale through multiple perspectives, Leaf and Scheinfeld provoked audiences to question the past with modern mindsets. As Lennon himself said, ‘I’m an artist first and a politician second.’ This film records the growth of a nation through the eyes of a pop star.
Beyond the political message, however, lies the more poignant mortal side of Lennon told through the story of his marriage with Ono. Combining both Ono’s memories and shots of the two looking lovingly into one another’s eyes, the film touches the audience.
Scenes of Lennon and Ono during their campaign for ‘Bed Peace,’ a piece of performance art in which Lennon and Ono stayed in bed for days surrounded by reporters and photographers, depict their powerful influence in the media and also reminds us that we often become so engrossed in the media circus that we forget the human side of fame.
Sentimentality also steals the show during the final scene. Here, Lennon’s life is almost picturesque. We see the singer in his most intimate moments with his wife, his joy at being accepted as an immigrant to the States and the birth of his son. The performer who sings ‘Before you go to sleep / Say a little prayer / Every day in every way / It’s getting better and better,’ beautifully captures the wonderful life that was abruptly taken away by the chilling sound of five gun shots on the night of Lennon’s murder. According to the directors, the purpose of such a dramatic finale was to recreate the sense of loss that Ono felt.
The power behind every scene, whether showing images of death and chaos or peace and love, comes from the movie’s soundtrack. Brilliantly paired songs give the documentary its edge, separating it from typical nonfiction films. With each song, the audience falls in sync with the events of the time, proving once again the universal seduction of music. Added bonuses like Lennon’s whimsical personality, sardonic remarks to the press and playground acts of retaliation also increase our fondness for him.
‘We’re not telling the audience what to think, we’re just asking them to think. That’s really the power of film, to provoke people to thought, to debate and possibly to action,’ Leaf said.
Though the movie is told primarily through the relationship of Ono and Lennon, excluding other Beatles members entirely, it does so with originality and finesse. Lennon fanatics, history junkies and general audiences alike can easily enjoy the film’s seriousness, grief and humor as we are all swept back into the romantic life of a historical icon.
‘The U.S. vs. John Lennon’ will be released on DVD on Feb. 13.