Radical Beatle

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Review of 'The US vs John Lennon', Directors: David Leaf and John Scheinfeld

This new documentary uncovers the revolutionary politics at the heart of John Lennon's music and life in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The film uses interviews with Yoko Ono, Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, Ron Kovic, Angela Davis and Bobby Seale to show how Lennon's politics were intimately connected to the rise of the anti-war movement against what the US was doing in Vietnam.

Lennon was radicalised by the war and the brutal response of the US state towards the protest movement, including the repression of black activists and the police assault on demonstrators outside the Democratic Party's convention in Chicago in August 1968.

Through his relationship with the avant-garde artist Yoko Ono, Lennon became interested in using his fame as one of The Beatles to promote world peace. Their pacifist-influenced stunts such as "Bagism" and a bed-in for peace gained wide press coverage, and acclaim and ridicule from different sources.

After the break-up of The Beatles, Lennon and Ono moved to New York, determined to be at the heart of an artistic and political revolution that they saw taking place there. Lennon wanted to use his music to defeat right wing US president Richard Nixon in the 1972 election. He planned a nationwide tour to galvanise an anti-Nixon, anti-war vote.

The US establishment around Nixon and FBI director J Edgar Hoover were at least as paranoid and vicious as today's. They were terrified by the threat of the movement to their power and used every legal and illegal method at their disposal to attempt to crush it. FBI agents admit in The US vs John Lennon that they did whatever Hoover thought necessary.

They turned their attention to John Lennon. The FBI opened a file on him - all his movements were monitored, his phone calls tapped. As a way of stopping his anti-Nixon tour, the state served a deportation notice on Lennon, which he then spent three years fighting.

Unfortunately, this worked. Lennon didn't do the tour and began to retreat from his revolutionary positions. Nixon's victory in the 1972 election was another blow to his political commitment. Nevertheless, before this John Lennon was a keen supporter of the Black Panther Party and the radical wing of the anti-war movement.

One of the best bits of The US vs John Lennon is the footage of the week long stint John and Yoko did on The Mike Douglas Show. Guests such as Black Panther leader Bobby Seale, activist Jerry Rubin and campaigner Ralph Nader meant the show was like Richard and Judy with revolutionary politics.

Another highlight is the hundreds of thousands of protesters at the Washington anti-war protest in 1969 singing Lennon's "Give Peace A Chance", a song he had written for people to sing on demonstrations.

One criticism I would have of the documentary is that it allows Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera and Nixon crony G Gordon Liddy to give the impression that Lennon was "manipulated" by key activists, without anybody correcting this. But Lennon was passionate about wanting to change society, as much of The US vs John Lennon makes clear.

John Lennon's life, ideas and music have inspired millions of people to fight for some kind of liberation and better life, and this is something that the US state could not kill. As the writer Gore Vidal comments at the end of the documentary, "John Lennon represents life. Richard Nixon and George Bush represent death."