The way things are going, they're gonna crucify me.
'I suppose they tried to kill John,' says Yoko Ono in the last moments of David Leaf's documentary about John Lennon 'but they couldn't, because his message is still alive.' Yoko has made a career out of inviting people to imagine that the moon was a grapefruit, but this is a baffling remark even by her standards.
Who are 'they'? In 1998, Sean Lennon revealed that he believed his father had been murdered by the U.S government. Does Yoko also now believe this theory? In the newspaper adverts she took out on the 26th anniversary of Lennon's murder she admitted that she could not forgive 'the one who pulled the trigger' -- as if she thought there might indeed have been other people involved. But if this is what she thinks, the subject is not mentioned, or even alluded to, anywhere else in the film.
If you like conspiracy theories, here's one. The makers of the U.S vs John Lennon set out to prove that the C.I.A murdered the singer. They assembled the evidence; they recorded their interviews--, but at the last moment, the studio decided that it was too hot to handle and deleted all references to the assassination from the film -- except for that one elliptical comment from Lennon's widow.( Oh, and if you play the film backwards, you can hear President Nixon saying 'I buried John.') Completely bonkers, like all conspiracy theories, but it does account for one otherwise inexplicable fact. How did such a dull movie as this ever come to be made?
If you are a John Lennon fan then very little in the film will be new to you. If you are not, then this isn't a particularly good introduction. For one thing, it is relentlessly Yokocentric. 'When he met Yoko' we are told 'He found the other half of his voice.' If Lennon had a song-writing partner before he married Yoko, then they are never mentioned by name. Indeed, but for a few bars of 'Revolution' and 'The Ballad of John and Yoko', you would hardly be able to tell that John Lennon had ever been in a group called the Beatles. And it is a very selective account, ignoring facts which don't fit in with the story it wants to tell. Yoko may have been half of John's voice, but during the period covered by the movie, Lennon walked out on her (or perhaps she kicked him out) for two years. Since the movie celebrates a Johnandyoko who believed in non-violence and compared themselves with Ghandi, it conveniently ignores his rather embarrassing sympathy for the I.R.A. ('You Anglo pigs and Scotties / Sent to colonize the North / You wave your bloody Union Jacks / And you know what it's worth... / ....Though Stormont bans our marches / They've got a lot to learn / Internment is no answer / It's those mothers turn to burn!') Occasionally, the film is downright misleading: John is allowed to describe himself as working class without anyone pointing out that while Paul lived in a council house, John decidedly grew up in the middle-class part of town and even went to grammar school. And the song which begins 'What a waste of human power / What a waste of human life' is placed over footage of the Vietnam war, even though it is actually about a prison riot.
The film starts with a brief recap of the 'bigger than Jesus' debacle. It isn't really clear what bearing this has on the overall argument. It is certainly true that some people in the Bible Belt were inexplicably offended by Lennon's suggestion that 'Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I will be proved right'. I wonder how extensive the ensuing antibeatlemania actually was? It's always the same Beatle records we see being put on the same bonfire: if that's the only footage anyone has, how widespread a phenomenon can it have been? Is the film trying to say that America hated Lennon from the beginning because he wasn't a Christian (except on the days when he was)? But I have never heard it claimed that his subsequent troubles with the U.S government were religiously motivated.
We then proceed to Lennon's marriage to Yoko Ono, and the story of how the couple turned their honeymoon into a publicity stunt against the Vietnam war. This is pretty familiar stuff, although the scene where he records 'Give Peace a Chance' lying in bed and surrounded by miscellaneous hangers on most of whom can't quite manage to clap in time with the music remains very funny and rather moving. At some point after this Bed-In for Peace the Beatles split up, but this isn't mentioned: what matters is that John and Yoko relocate to America and get involved in the peace movement and radical politics there.
The film argues that the pivotal event is John's appearance at a benefit concert in December 1971 to campaign for the release of one John Sinclair, a political activist who'd been given a ten year jail sentence for possessing two joints of marijuana. John wrote a protest song (possibly in his sleep) and performed it at the concert. Astonishingly, 55 hours later, Sinclair was released from prison. The following February, John and Yoko's temporary visas were withdrawn and they were told to leave America. I don't think anyone now doubts that this was not, as the immigration department claimed at the time, because John had a trivial conviction in the UK for possessing marijuana, but because the Nixon administration was frightened of him as a political activist and peace campaigner with an influence on newly enfranchised young people. J. Edgar Hoover himself wrote 'All extremists should be considered dangerous' across his F.B.I file. The film shows documents which appear to prove that President Nixon must have known about, if he didn't personally order, the campaign against the Lennons.
Lennon hired a clever lawyer and staged publicity stunts and 'happenings' to further his campaign to be allowed to stay in America. We see some very amusing footage of the press conference at which he announced that he had founded a new country, declared himself an ambassador of it, and therefore granted himself diplomatic immunity. It was not until 1976 that he was finally given indefinite leave to remain in the U.S.A by which time Nixon had resigned in disgrace.
The film ends with some unfamiliar home movies of John during his 'Househusband' phase, including an amusing recording of him interviewing Sean while changing his nappy. This sequence is cut short by the sound of five gunshots, but nothing else is said, either about Chapman or the circumstances of John's death. And it wisely avoids mentioning the appalling fact that if President Nixon had been successful in his attempts to kick him out of America, John Lennon would almost certainly be alive today.
So there is a massive gap in the film. We are being asked to draw a line between the 'bigger than Jesus' controversy; the attempts to deport John from the U.S.A; the acknowledged criminality of the president (we actually hear Mr. Bernstein himself explaining what a bad egg Richard Nixon was); and what happened outside the Dakota Building in December 1980. But so far as I can tell, no link is proven to exist. The immigration department acted legally (if in a petty and paranoid way) in trying to deport a political agitator with a drugs record. If it is true that the F.B.I bugged Lennon's phone then I believe they were within their constitutional rights to do so if they thought he was a threat to national security. His anti-Christian remarks were not (so far as I know) cited as a reason for removing his visa. And I'm sorry, but Mark Chapman was a lone nut who thought (rightly) that he could gain a kind of fame by selecting a famous person and murdering them. So what, in the end, is the film saying?
'I suppose they tried to kill John, but they couldn't, because his message is still alive.' What message? This film is possibly worth 90 minutes of your time because it gives you the opportunity to look at clips and recordings of John Lennon. His charisma jumps out of every frame: this poorly educated, pretty obviously damaged young man, shooting from the hip, saying whatever comes into his head, angry, passionate, witty, surreal. In the middle of answering questions about Vietnam when he is still a mop top, he suddenly interrupts himself to do a riff about 'show business, darling.' When asked how he feels about the people who tried to deport him he says, apparently off the cuff 'Time wounds all heels.' And his energy and commitment as a performer take your breath away. 'It ain't fair / John Sinclair / In the stir for breathing air' is a terrible, terrible song -- yet this doesn't seem to matter as Lennon uses it to channel the anger of a stadium full of people. I defy anyone not to be moved when we see Sinclair coming out of prison hours after Lennon sung this song. So the film does nothing but reinforce my admiration for Lennon the man.
But Lennon's message? The film suggests that he allowed himself to become a political tool of left wing activists like Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman (who he later described as 'Mork and Mindy'). It rather pointedly doesn't say that he was also a tool in the hands of a radical surrealist named Yoko Ono. Lennon seems to have been one of those natural forces that needed to be harnessed and pointed in a constructive direction by someone. But can he really be said to have had a 'message' of his own?
Lennon's later work consists of powerful, memorable, but ultimately meaningless phrases, endlessly repeated: 'Woman is the nigger of the world'; 'War is over, if you want it', 'Just Give Me Some Truth'; 'Power to the People, Right on!', 'Free the people, now!' There is no suggestion of what the people are going to do once they are empowered, or what feminists need to do to improve the position of women in society. He refuses point blank to make any specific critique of U.S foreign policy. When someone asks him 'What should the President do?' he replies simply 'He should declare peace.' Yoko once suggested that people should go naked for peace. (How? Why? To what end?) 'Peace' seems not to be a political concept or a state which can exist or not exist between nations: it's a magic word to be said over and over, like one of the Maharishi's T.M mantras, until it stops meaning anything at all.
Lennon may have believed that he was literally raising people's consciousness, that repeating a phrase could somehow release peace and love into the world: instant karma. One can't help thinking that much of this came from Yoko, and that the authentic voice of Lennon comes through only in the (often inaudible) intermediate stanzas. 'Everybody's talking about ministers, sinisters, banisters and canisters, bishops, fishops, rabbis and popeyes, bye bye.' There speaks the true voice of the man who used to think he was a walrus.
Above all, Lennon was a performer. Aligning himself with the 'peace' movement – on the days when he wasn't sitting in paper bags, demanding acorns at the wrong time of year, or making 45 minute films of his penis (*) -- was indeed a powerful political act. But take away the surrealism, the bottoms, the silly little drawings, the records consisting of nothing but feedback and try to present him as primarily a peace campaigner and revolutionary and it becomes painfully obvious that he didn't have a message. All he was saying was 'give peace a chance.'
What we really need at this stage in the day is a long, joyous documentary with lots of complete recordings of Lennon's music and lots of unexpurgated interviews and footage of John Lennon: swearing, angry, silly, infantile, magnificent. What we don't particularly need is to rake over this ancient quarrel.
I saw the movie on the 26th anniversary: the cinema was empty.
(*) A good joke, to be fair. He'd previously made a film called Erection which turned out to be nothing ruder than a 20 minute film of a building site, this one, called Self-Portrait was a film about a prick. Like most conceptual art, once you've heard it described, you don't actually need to see it.