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John Lennon: America's foe

About the author
Richard Young holds degrees from Cambridge (Arch/Anth) and SOAS (MSc Politics/Development). He has been an archaeologist and journalist.


Richard Young interviews David Leaf

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"You say you'll change the constitution
Well you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it's the institution
Well you know
You better free your mind instead"

The Beatles - Revolution


8 December marked the 26th anniversary of John Lennon's death. It also saw the timely release in the UK of a new film about a defining period in his life. David Leaf and John Sheinfeld's John Lennon vs the US examines the years in which he became an increasingly politicised and outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, and the backlash he suffered from the Nixon administration, who perceived him as a political threat.

The film is part counter-culture history lesson, part Lennon biography, and part Nixon administration exposé. Concentrating on the period from the late 1960s to the mid 1970s, Leaf and Sheinfeld draw on extensive archival footage to give a sense of the Zeitgeist in the US - failed flower power, conservatism, war, anger, fear and bubbling revolution. The range of talking heads is also impressive - activists, politicians, writers, FBI agents, and Yoko Ono (but no Beatles) flesh out the archival material, to tell the story of the era and of peacenik against war machine.

The film serves as an American history lesson and a fascinating one, but at its core is a celebration of Lennon's life and philosophy of peace. It portrays him as a loveable rebel - witty, bemused and mischievous, whose forthright opinions get him in trouble with authority. This time that authority is the US government, willing to use its security services and lawyers as a political police force to silence dissent.

The flowering of Lennon's political consciousness and the direction it takes him - from the identikit "four-headed monster", as Mick Jagger called the Beatles, to maverick artist-politician - is well delivered. We witness Lennon's increasingly ecstatic awareness, in large part thanks to Ono, that his position in the media spotlight and his hugely successful music could serve a political and social goal - spreading a message of non-violent revolution; convincing the world to "give peace a chance".

There are parallels to be drawn here too. As Gore Vidal says, the term "unpatriotic" to denounce dissenters, and the whipping up of fear to scare people into an acceptance of war, were used by both the Nixon and Bush administrations in the run up to and during both the Vietnam War and the current conflict in Iraq. The film also reveals the gulf between the sanitised world of modern celebrity political activists, who use official channels of protest, and the joyful Dadaistic attempts of John and Yoko, to spread their message of peace.

John Lennon vs the US is undeniably skewed towards a rosy image of Lennon, and glosses over the militant aspects of the anti-war movement he became involved with. But what we do see is an innovative, loving, funny, philosophical and courageous man fighting with all his will to promote a revolution of the mind against what he saw as a "society run by insane people for insane objectives".


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