If you had to name an enemy of the US, who would it be? Osama Bin Laden? Probably. After all, he tops both the FBI's and the Justice Department's most wanted lists. But what about The Dixie Chicks or Sean Penn? While no threat to national security, both have spoken out against President Bush and both could have posed a threat to his re-election. Forty years ago, anti-war activities like these turned John Lennon into Public Enemy Number One. President Nixon considered the British rocker's influence dangerous, and he did everything in his power to silence the musician's protest against the Vietnam War.
The Nixon Administration's failed attempt to deport Lennon is the focus of The US Vs. John Lennon, a new documentary by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld, which concentrates on the decade between 1966-1976. “Tragically, the movie is contemporary,” says Scheinfeld. “There are a number of resonances in what the Nixon Administration did to John Lennon which seem familiar to us today with the Bush Administration – things like illegal wire tapping, surveillance and harassment.”
Incorporating interviews with family, friends and key figures from the era, the film captures the complexities of John Lennon and his growing commitment to engage and ultimately change the social, political and cultural landscape. But rarely have we seen Lennon as unguarded as we do here, and for that the directors owe a huge debt to Yoko Ono.
“We could not have made this movie without her,” admits Scheinfeld. “We needed never-before-seen footage, which she had. Almost from the moment that she and John got together, their life was documented, and she had this amazing archival collection of unfinished films, home movies, and private wedding photographs – all of which we got. We wanted to do extensive interviews with her to find out what happened, which we got. We wanted lots of John Lennon's music, which we got. We had to pay for the rights but you still need her blessing to do that. We needed her blessing for all of this or it wouldn't
Getting the notoriously cagey Ono to trust them “wasn't easy,” he says, “but we've worked with the Sinatras, and we've worked with a lot of people, so word gets around. But she is a tough evaluator in that sense and it took a long time for her to open up and trust that we would treat the legacy properly.”
A former executive at Paramount who branched out on his own, Scheinfeld has written, produced and directed almost thirty documentaries. His particular interest is musicians, and to date he's covered everyone from The Bee Gees and Ricky Nelson to Nilsson and Bette Midler. “But this was by far the most difficult,” he laughs. “Both David Leaf and I are gigantic Beatles fans to the point where we know everything, but we didn't know this story, so that's why we wanted to do it.”
At the time, very few knew this story. Rolling Stone Magazine broke a tiny piece on it in late 1974, and then for the next twenty years people tried unsuccessfully to get the FBI documents on Lennon under the Freedom Of Information Act. “Finally in the mid '90s those documents started to come out and all of a sudden we had a bigger view of the story.” Scheinfeld and Leaf spent the next decade trying to sell it, but no one was buying. “Until finally in a post 9/11, Iraq War world, somebody began to see a contemporary relevance for the audience,” says the director.
The movie is neither a “polemic” nor a “diatribe”, insists Scheinfeld. “It's not a call to action. We believe that John Lennon can inspire people today as he did many years ago but that's up to the audience. We're determined to not tell our audiences what to think in our movies. We want them to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions from it.”