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BEFORE WE BEGIN: There are two reasons why CrankyCritic.com, which doesn't normally review documentaries, is doing this one. First, we include Plastic Ono Band guitarist Wayne Gabriel among our acquaintances and friends, having worked with his wife Sandra producing the first few years of The Robert Klein Radio Hour. Lennon was scheduled to appear on that program on December 15, 1980. We never met him because, well, do the calendar math. Second, we count The U.S. vs. John Lennon co-writer/director John Scheinfeld among our best friends, almost thirty years running. Hopefully that will continue post three words from now...
IN SHORT: A Tedious history. [Rated PG-13 for some strong language, violent images and drug references. 100 minutes]
There is a technique to rock and roll documentary production that we spent many years churning out in our first career in the radio business -- actually we may have learned it from Mr. Scheinfeld -- which involves matching the lyrical content of songs to a specific spoken comment. No snide remarks, people, it was new when [we] first started doing it thirty years back. To wit, imagine hearing music underneath someone talking about a beautiful sunrise. The comments end just as the music "hits the post" and the Beatles begin to sing "Here comes the sun..." The U.S. vs. John Lennon attempts to bring that technique to the big screen as often as it can. Sometimes it works. Sometimes not. The rest of the time the film charts the recollections of friends and enemies and disinterested observers to the then-considered outrageous comments of Beatle John Lennon, focussing on the post Beatle, politically radicalized John. It's a great idea for a doc. An idea terrifically summed up in the title of a film which takes an hour or so before it finally gets to the point.
The point? Lennon's loud mouth -- if he were American he would have been labelled a 'wise acre' or something similar in the vernacular of the time -- turns political. Since he wasn't a green card carrying legal resident alien, the Nixon-era government tried to get him expelled from the country. It should be a great story of how big government run wild is dangerous. It's not.
We are surely wrong about this but we cannot remember hearing the word "Beatles" at all in, at least, the first hour of The U.S. vs. John Lennon. As we've been writing for the last decade, 'you shouldn't have to know the Source Material to understand the movie...' The twenty five years since his death makes that rule all the more important especially when you consider that there is at least two generations of kiddies who have no idea how significant the Beatles and then the Lennon immigration fight were.
While the film begins with plenty of material about Lennon's infamous, off the cuff "we're bigger than Jesus" remark, film of Lennon making that particular statement is not present in this telling. It helps if you remember it first hand -- unless there's a fundamentalist Sunday school still teaching the incident as proof that rock 'n' roll is truly The Devil's Music -- the statement is just a footnote to history, greatly eclipsed by Lennon's assassination itself. That The Beatles really did get more attention from public and press than a certain dead god figure was enough to piss off any religious fundamentalist or political right winger that believed rock and roll was Evil. Lennon humbly offers an apology, seen in this film, but we doubt the Right of the time paid any attention.
Post Beatles and post Vietnam, Lennon continues to exercise what would become his First Amendment right to get political, which was more than enough to piss off the Nixonians in charge. The battle over Lennon's application for resident status was big news in its time. Angela Davis and Bobby Seale and Dick Cavett and Walter Cronkite and George McGovern and other major names, in addition to Lennon's widow Yoko Ono, lay out the times and film images add Lennons own words to the mix (which comes off as more stapled together than seamlessly integrated) but if you weren't there, well, the kidlets in our immediate family, ages 13 to 16, wouldn't have a clue.
Lennon's transformation from cutie pie mop top to political force is in there, somewhere. Getting through the excess material is a far too difficult task for the audience, and one that should have been better addressed by the film makers in the edit room. Strangely enough the high point of the entire film is the interview material with G. Gordon Liddy, a surviving Nixon henchman who is clear and concise and delivers all the material that the title promises. It comes far too late for the average joe.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The U.S. vs. John Lennon , he would have paid . . .
Sorry, John, The U.S. vs. John Lennon is a major disappointment.
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