John Lennon documentarians aim to give us some truth

October 01, 2006|By MICHAEL SRAGOW | MICHAEL SRAGOW,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Since partners such as Paul McCartney and Yoko Ono sparked John Lennon's creative breakthroughs, it's fitting that two people - veteran documentary-makers David Leaf and John Scheinfeld - wrote, produced and directed The U.S. vs. John Lennon.

This alternately engaging and incendiary film, now playing at the Charles, gives equal weight to both its subjects: what was happening in the U.S. and in the life and work of John Lennon between 1966 and 1976. Leaf and Scheinfeld have come up with the fullest screen portrait yet of Lennon as a maturing pop thinker who drew on ruthless self-analysis as well as sharp perception when he created anthems like "Give Peace a Chance." They also put together an incisive account of the Nixon government's attempt to deport Lennon after he merged his increasingly personal art with his increasingly left-wing causes.

The movie "was a true collaboration in every sense," says Scheinfeld. While one of the filmmakers questioned a witness, the other kept his eyes trained on the video monitor and made sure they got a full answer.

Their teamwork went beyond logistics. Friends for over two decades and production partners for 13 years, Leaf and Scheinfeld forged their own Lennon-McCartney kind of chemistry during the making of The U.S. vs. John Lennon. "David is from New York," says Scheinfeld. "He's tougher, more cynical. I'm from the Midwest. I am a relentless optimist. But we're both attracted to stories of people who go their own ways and are really individuals, like John Lennon."

Leaf says the biggest difference between them is that he went to George Washington University during the Nixon era, while Scheinfeld, a Milwaukean, went to Oberlin in Ohio. For Leaf, recounting the events of the Vietnam-Watergate era was affecting "in a real visceral sense. I remember going to see Norman Mailer speak at Lafayette Park; I remember being chased by the civil disturbance unit of the D.C. police; I remember an Army airborne division arriving in trucks to surround the campus."

Giving the context

Neither director, each of whom was interviewed separately by phone, wanted to create even a dark "trip down memory lane for baby boomers. We wanted to deal with issues like freedom of speech and government abuse of power and create a context so that other audiences would understand what John and Yoko were walking into when they became politically involved and why they were feared," says Scheinfeld. "We wanted to remind people who've forgotten or educate people who didn't know that John was more than the Beatle who got shot and killed."

In 1969, when John and his conceptual-artist wife Yoko staged their "Bed-In" for peace - talking to hundreds of reporters over the course of seven days from their honeymoon bed in the Amsterdam Hilton - even some of Lennon's fans felt embarrassed for their hero. Scheinfeld says: "A lot of people thought he and Yoko were silly, but they did make an impact in the mainstream media. Lennon was fascinated by slogans and advertising, and he always said you could sell peace like soap."

Leaf says he was too young at the time "to understand the kind of courage it took to do what John and Yoko did without regard to consequence; I was too young to appreciate what they were willing to put at risk. And I don't know that John understood, at first, that by promoting peace he was implicitly antiwar, and that the U.S. government would take that as a threat."

They were determined to make America their home: As Lennon said in a 1971 news conference, "In England, I'm regarded as the lucky guy who won the pools. She's regarded as the lucky Jap who married the guy who won the pools. In America, we are both treated as artists." But in 1972, the deputy attorney general canceled a temporary extension of their visas because of a minor British drug charge Lennon pleaded guilty to in 1968. John and Yoko saw which way the wind was blowing and decided to take a stand.

Built for rebellion

Lennon's savvy, candor and mother wit electrify this movie and make him seem in some ways the perfect rebel artist.

"Go back to John's Liverpudlian roots and you see the whole basis of Liverpool humor is to undercut authority," says Leaf. "He loved people who pricked the balloon of pomposity. His fans saw that in the cheeky days of the Beatles, and he never lost his sense of humor."

Scheinfeld emphasizes "even though everyone knows Lennon had a way with a phrase, whether it's `All you need is love' or `Give peace a chance,' one of the things we tried to show was that the coming together of John and Yoko was crucial to his evolution. She came from the left in the avant-garde world in New York; he came from the left in rock 'n' roll. Being with her accelerated his politicization."

The U.S. vs. John Lennon succeeds at debunking the legend of Yoko as the strange, pretentious art gal who stole John from his more "normal" first wife, Cynthia, and catalyzed the breakup of the Beatles.

The Bed-In comes off as the perfect provocation for a popular artist like Lennon and a performance artist like Yoko, promoting peace while mocking bogus notions of celebrity dignity.

Yoko's participation in the film was crucial, says Leaf - "She was the one in bed with John!" Leaf got the assignment to interview her, and he thinks the filmmakers won her over because she could tell from his questions that "we weren't trying to do a Beatles documentary sideways."

They didn't know what she thought of the finished film, though, until she paid them the highest compliment at a joint news conference.

Yoko said: "Of all the documentaries that have been made about John, this is the one he would have loved."

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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