War and peace

‘U.S. vs. John Lennon’ explores former Beatle’s battle to stay in the country

Whether revisiting Richard Nixon’s Watergate waterloo or showing us protesters chanting “Give Peace a Chance,” “The U.S. vs. John Lennon” is more a nostalgic ode to uncommon times and a fabulous pop artist than a penetrating look at a formidable counterculture and a deluded government. But, as such, this documentary is hard to resist.

Filmmakers David Leaf and John Scheinfeld have a dynamite story to tell in the Nixon administration’s attempt, in the early 1970s, to send music icon and anti-Vietnam War activist John Lennon, a New York City resident, back to Britain because of his political activities. They present it winningly.

Combining footage and interviews with about 30 notables — Yoko Ono, Angela Davis, Walter Cronkite, Ron Kovic, G. Gordon Liddy, and venerable talking head Gore Vidal among them — the filmmakers chronicle the events of the deportation case, which Lennon eventually won, and of Lennon’s post-Beatle life.

Key points include Lennon’s participationin political projects — including a concert calling (successfully) for the release of activist John Sinclair (serving a 10-year sentence for giving two joints to an undercover cop) — and associations with high-profile radicals. Such connections prompted the administration to deem the popular Lennon, an avowed pacifist, an undesirable alien and (with 18-year-olds newly able to vote) a threat to the presidency.

The film also depicts Lennon’s relationship with life partner Ono. The pair’s headline-making bed-ins receive special attention.

As a portrait of Lennon and the times he inhabited, the film lacks revelations. It paints Lennon as implausibly saintly. It doesn’t capture the fervor of a counterculture whose passion and viability now seem like simply a dream.

But as a glimpse at a superb rebel moment on history’s conformity-dominated social continuum, and as a gust of Nixonian weirdness, the movie pleases.

Its period footage (some newly released, some familiar) can’t help but convey how talented and witty Lennon was and how relevant this story is in current “patriotic” climes. It upliftingly reminds us that there was a recent time when über-popular stars were displaying true radical shades instead of sharing diet tips on “Entertainment Tonight.” It demonstrates how pop music, and artists like Lennon, can give young people a beat and a boost.

The soundtrack, too, which contains 40 Lennon songs, from “Instant Karma” to “Mother,” merits mention. True, you can often guess which tune will accompany any given topical passage, but it all sounds great.

Movie review

The U.S. vs. John Lennon ???

With John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Angela Davis, John Sinclair and Bobby Seale

Written and directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld

Rated PG-13

Running time 1 hour, 39 minutes

artsentertainmentOther Arts

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