by Joe Auciello / November issue of Socialist Action Newspaper
“I would like to compose songs for the revolution.”
— John Lennon, in an interview with Robin Blackburn and Tariq Ali, 1971.
The U.S. government was not entirely wrong about John Lennon. It made sense, from their point of view, to record his statements, track his activities, and ultimately, try and deport him from the country. For Lennon was more than a lovable moptop turned dewy-eyed dreamer, some harmless mystic imagining peace and chanting in his bed with Yoko Ono.
For a time in the early 1970s, Lennon was a friend and ally of the radical movement in Britain and America. He was a child of the working class and a self-described seeker of truth whose phenomenal success in capitalist society deepened his sense of disgust and alienation.
Instead of sitting contentedly on top of the world, he wanted to help make a better one. From a youthful rebellion that found its expression in American rock ’n’ roll, his instincts matured into a political rebellion that merged music with social protest.
As a former Beatle, a celebrity of world stature, Lennon had the potential to influence an entire generation and spur on youthful rebels in every corner of the globe. He wrote popular anthems of protest— “Give Peace a Chance, “Imagine,” “Power to the People”—that were sung in marches and rallies everywhere.
What’s more, Lennon participated in social struggles. He sang at benefits, spoke at antiwar rallies (the film shows John and Yoko speaking under the banner of the National Peace Action Coalition in New York City in April 1972), and contemplated a national U.S. tour that would combine music and revolutionary politics. There were even rumors, which Lennon denied, of organizing a protest at the Republican National Convention.
In Nixon-era America, these activities brought Lennon the nervous attention of government officials, including the president. Nixon could always tell an enemy when he saw one.
“The U.S. vs. John Lennon” uses video clips, television and news footage, and contemporary interviews, matching these images with Lennon’s music. The fit is not always exact, but the blend generally succeeds in creating a coherent narrative.
The opening scenes of the film focus on “the Beatles are more popular than Jesus” fiasco and Lennon’s contrived, unconvincing apology, when he tried to spin and deny the meaning of his words. After that humiliation, it’s clear to see why he was determined thereafter to speak his mind frankly, regardless of the consequences.
Also speaking frankly are G. Gordon Liddy, of Watergate infamy, and former FBI special agents, who reveal the inner workings of the spy operation against Lennon. Having concluded that he was a threat to “national security,” the U.S. government decided to deport Lennon based on a long-forgotten drug conviction.
From the government’s perspective, it was a good plan. Even if the deportation effort failed, Lennon would be overwhelmed with his case and thus unable to continue his political activity. This strategy was successful, and Lennon withdrew from politics, though the film puts greater emphasis on Lennon’s ultimate vindication.
One significant failing of this documentary is the effort to portray President Nixon as a villain without precedent. The interviews with former Democratic Party presidential candidate George McGovern and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo are especially misleading.
Truly, Nixon was a despicable man, but to portray the tricky Republican as a complete aberration ignores the many years of spying and disruption carried out under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, both Democrats. Cointelpro did not begin with Richard Nixon (though with George Bush it is ready to be born again).
Toward the end of the 1970s, as the tide of popular protest crested and fell, Lennon’s sympathies for the left waned as well, and he turned to private life, fatherhood, and family. In his last years, Lennon downplayed the most radical phase of his life, though even at the end he called himself an “instinctive socialist.”
Lennon was not a theoretician with comprehensive, well-rounded ideas for social change. He was an artist groping for the right way as an activist, responding to and partly echoing whichever reformers or revolutionaries he encountered.
Essentially, Lennon was an idealist who was convinced that reality could be transformed by the power of the active imagination, that sheer belief in a better world would be sufficient to summon it into being. This belief may be misguided, but it is a utopian impulse that puts Lennon in the camp of the rebel left and in opposition to the repressive state.
This film deserves to find an audience. For the youth, who only know Lennon from a few songs played on the oldies stations, the documentary reveals the frightened antagonism of a reactionary administration, fearful of protest, lashing out maliciously at an artist who sang for peace and a life free of humiliation, illusion, and pain.
For the boomer generation who lived through these exciting, turbulent years along with Lennon, the film is an inspirational reminder, a worthy trip—pun intended—down Penny Lane.