John Lennon may have believed in the idea of peace, but he wasn't exactly a peaceful man. He had a stormy temperament and was famously quick to boil. One of the most revealing moments in the new documentaryThe U.S. Vs. John Lennon is a replay of the Montreal bed-in confrontation between Lennon and New York Times reporter Gloria Emerson. She pushes past the flowery, junket-like atmosphere and takes aim, accusing him of being more or less a stooge of the anti-war movement. Lennon's gut response is to turn nasty. His small eyes become fixed and feral, his shoulders hunch over, as if he's preparing for a roll in the Liverpool dust of his youth. It's the kind of scene that would be at home in a truly critical look at the man behind the music. Unfortunately, the makers of this film had something different in mind. Directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld have clearly cut a devil's bargain here, accepting a 'Yoko-approved' stamp on every frame of their film in exchange for unfettered usage of the Lennon catalog.
The trade-off has some benefits. Even if you're turned off by the hagiographic nature of the doc, which makes hero-worshipping hay out of some Watergate-era chicanery to get Lennon's U.S. visa revoked -- surely the least of the Nixon's regime's misdeeds -- you can still sit back and relax to a generous sampling of Lennon's post-Beatles hits. Instead of interviews with family members, old band mates and friends, the filmmakers have assembled a collage of notable radicals from the 1960s. Some are dead, and some are living. There's Bobby Seale, the Black Panthers founder who encouraged his minions to use food money to buy "a gun a week." He seems to have spent the last 30 years near a McDonald's drive-in. Famed burglar G. Gordon Liddy is on hand, along with his mustache, to contribute his two cents on the Lennon mystique. The saga of activist Fred Hampton is revisited; Noam Chomsky makes a brief appearance to accuse the F.B.I. of having murdered him. You get the idea.