The U.S. vs. John Lennon

John Lennon and Yoko Ono in front of a version of the Stars and Stripes



Professional musician and amateur situationist John Lennon has always been an easy target for anyone wanting to level a charge of hypocrisy. “Imagine no possessions,” he sang, and the fingers started pointing at his lavish lifestyle – insert your own version of the story about the fur coats kept in a refrigerated room in the Dakota Building. David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s documentary will provide fuel for both the haters and the idolisers, it being the story of how the US authorities revoked the chippiest man in rock’s Green Card in the 1970s, in an attempt to get this dangerous dissident out of the country.

Well, that’s ostensibly what it’s about. In fact for a good while the film acts as a primer on Lennon’s pre- and post-Beatles life. Though gradually the pattern of political, media-focused “eventism” starts to take shape. More than most, Lennon understood how the media operated – that if they don’t get something they’ll just make it up. And so he gave them something. Often it was pranks, this being Lennon’s lifelong default – saying, while still in the Beatles, that the band was “more popular than Jesus” being one of the occasions when he couldn’t resist giving the dog a bone. So, in The US Vs John Lennon, we get the bed-ins, the bagism and the politically motivated concerts, notably the one for marijuana activist John Sinclair, who had been jailed for ten years for the possession of two joints. The concert was instantly successful in getting Sinclair’s conviction overturned but it made Lennon a target for FBI phone-taps and street surveillance, and encouraged the White House to ready plans to deport him. At this point Lennon did what all rich men do – he put a lawyer on the case and stonewalled until the political climate changed (which it did once Gerald Ford replaced Richard Nixon as President).

Made for VH1, and with the co-operation of Yoko Ono, the film goes no further than it has to in terms of revelation and analysis, though there is some interesting stuff in here for the Beatles completist. Not just the music. For instance, the footage from Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous bed-in (a jokey perversion of the hippie “be in”) at the Amsterdam Hilton is more complete than we’re used to, and includes Lennon’s defence of what the pair were doing as a protest against the Vietnam War. For once, seen in full and in their own words, the couple seem rational, earnest and politically engaged rather than sensation-seeking, dilettantish and rich to the point of foolishness. And it clearly details the moment when Lennon was later invited to put his money where his mouth was and take part in an anti-Nixon, anti-War concert outside the Republican convention in 1972. He declined. This marked the end of John Lennon’s political moment. Had his pranksterism burnt out, or self-preservation kicked in? Or was he just sick of being co-opted? The film has nothing to offer.




The US Vs John Lennon – Watch it/buy it at Amazon




© Steve Morrissey 2006


Nowhere Boy

Aaron Taylor and Anne-Marie Duff in Nowhere Boy


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



8 December



John Lennon murdered, 1980

On this day in 1980, John Lennon was murdered by Mark Chapman outside the south entrance of the Dakota building, where Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, had had an apartment since 1973. Chapman shot Lennon four times in the back and Lennon probably died immediately. He was certainly dead by the time medics at the Roosevelt Hospital saw him. Lennon and Yoko Ono had been out for the evening, mixing a track from their forthcoming album. Lennon had the final mix of the track, Walking on Thin Ice, appropriately, in his hand when he was approached by Chapman for the second time that day. On the first occasion, as Lennon and Ono had gone out earlier, Lennon had obligingly signed a copy of Double Fantasy, his most recent album, for a silent Chapman, and asked him “is this all you want?” It wasn’t all Chapman wanted: he had been planning on killing Lennon for months, and later claimed it was Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark, along with his songs Imagine and God, that had prompted him to do it. But considering that Lennon had made the “Jesus” remark in 1966, and released God and Imagine at the beginning of the 1970s, it seems likely that Chapman was looking for a rationale. The death was so shocking not just because Lennon had been among the most well known people on the planet, but because assassination was the sort of thing that happened to politicians, not pop stars. Lennon’s death inaugurated the era of celebrity stalking.




Nowhere Boy (2009, dir: Sam Taylor-Johnson)

Kicking off with the opening chord from A Hard Day’s Night, this film telling the Beatles origins story as a biopic of John Lennon marks the directorial debut of Sam Taylor-Wood, as she was then, and stars her future husband, Aaron Johnson, as John Lennon. Like fellow conceptual artist Steve McQueen, Taylor-Johnson shows herself to be a natural film-maker, and builds a film carefully and in an unshowy fashion, relying on well drawn characters and a solid script. She has a wealth of British acting talent to help her – Kristin Scott Thomas as Lennon’s Aunt Mimi, strict, socially aspiring and hard to like but a woman who loves her sister’s boy deeply; Anne-Marie Duff as his wayward mother Julia; and Johnson himself who is the best Lennon since Ian Hart had a go in 1994’s Backbeat. Catching the snap of Liverpudlian banter brilliantly, the film is equally good on Lennon’s charisma and his bullying, wheedling sarcasm. As the insolent rebel growing up in an age of deference, Johnson’s Lennon is sold as the embodiment of rock and roll, the new spirit blowing away the make-do-and-mend of the Second World War. The screenplay is by Matt Greenhalgh who’d done similar rock’n’roll duty two years earlier on Control, the Joy Division/New Order origins story as biopic of singer Ian Curtis. He’s as keen to examine the slightly incestuous feelings Lennon had for his mother (that line “Mother you had me, but I never had you” from the song Mother sounds like a bell when it plays on the soundtrack) as he is to burnish the legend. “Genius is pain” Lennon once said, by which he meant his own genius, and it is to the film’s credit that it takes that pain on but isn’t overwhelmed by it. This is no hagiography.



Why Watch?


  • Aaron Johnson’s first lead role
  • The Goldfrapp soundtrack
  • 50 Shades of Grey director Sam Taylor-Wood’s directorial debut
  • The Beatles are not mentioned even once


© Steve Morrissey 2013



Nowhere Boy – at Amazon