Generic VH1 rock doc, The U.S. vs. John Lennon—opening here next week—is snazzy, mawkish, and practically Pavlovian in recycling all requisite late-’60s images. Given its subject, though, this David Leaf–John Scheinfeld production is not only poignant but even topical.
Once upon a time, in the summer of 1971, John Lennon and Yoko Ono relocated to New York. Soon, these counterculture deities were chilling with all manner of yippies, Panthers, and underground personalities. Jerry Rubin recruited them to appear at a “John Sinclair Freedom Rally” in liberated Ann Arbor. The U.S. vs. John Lennon opens with a clip from this event, and it’s a wondrous shock to see Lennon simply amble onstage to sing. The star’s availability is notable, as is his effect. Two days later, Sinclair—serving a 10-year sentence for passing two joints to a narc—was freed, pending appeal.
Follow-up plans were made for a Lennon-Ono rock caravan cum anti-Nixon magical mystery tour to culminate at the 1972 Republican Convention. The idea was to mobilize newly enfranchised 18-year-olds. Perhaps Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan would join! Next, John and Yoko played the Apollo at a benefit for the families of the prisoners shot during the Attica uprising. A February 4 memo from Senator Strom Thurmond to Attorney General John Mitchell suggested Lennon be deported; a month later, the Immigration and Naturalization Service refused to renew his visa.
Not since Charlie Chaplin was driven from Cold War America 20 years before had the feds subjected a superstar to such concentrated attention. Lennon eventually prevailed, but he was effectively neutralized for the duration of the presidential campaign. Among other things, Leaf and Scheinfeld establish their protagonist as the most quick-witted of public figures. You needn’t be half as sharp to grasp the parallels made to Bush’s America.