DVD REVIEW: The U.S. vs. John Lennon

Lionsgate
Movie •••• Picture •••½ Sound •••½ Extras ••••
The immigration woes of John Lennon, one of pop culture's most polarizing figures, are put under the microscope in this revealing documentary. Besides indicting the misguided, insidious intentions of the U.S. government toward Lennon, the film reinforces the fact that there are unmistakable, chilling parallels between the handling of the "conflict" in Vietnam and our current military situation in Iraq. One cannot help but wonder what Lennon would be saying and doing today.

The film follows a traditional documentary path, as archival footage is interspersed with modern-day interviewing of the surviving principles. Isn't it a sad statement about our current cultural climate that it's genuinely refreshing to see how real the older talking heads look? That is, you can actually see the evidence of how they've aged over the last three decades: Clumps and flecks of gray and white hair abound on heads and in beards, as do lines on foreheads and faces. (In other words, political activists don't bother with Botox.)

Somewhat distracting from the interviews are the inexplicable vertical bands of green light that appear, presumably for graphic effect, in different places in the background. Sometimes the bands swoosh across the screen to transition between the blue-screen collages from the 1960s and/or '70s that are playing behind the subjects, or to take us to different interview subjects; it's all done rather randomly, and quickly gets intrusive.

Yoko Ono, of course, gets the best lighting of anyone (with no projections behind her), and she looks positively radiant, despite the seriousness of the subject matter. Occasionally, you can see the folds in her white leather cap, but other times it practically whites-out on screen. Folds are also discernible on her black leather jacket, as are the sparkling beads (diamonds?) that dot each shoulder. White highlights reflect brilliantly off her stylish, brown-lensed glasses, which are perched ever so strategically down her nose so you can see her eyes at all times. There's even a hint - just a hint - of gray at her temples.

Dialogue and narration are properly centered and often buttressed in the fronts by the Lennon-heavy soundtrack. One thing that would've been cool to hear remixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 is the infamous organic hotel-room singalong of "Give Peace a Chance." All we get in the surrounds, though, is the Lionsgate "theme" before the film begins.

The hour's worth of bonus material is telling. At least half of it is devoted to interviews that focus more on today's politics than Lennon's plight, and the editors were right in cutting them from the film. (It is a bit shocking to hear George McGovern say that certain actions of the current administration are far worse than anything Richard Nixon ever did, however.) You also get Walter Cronkite recounting how he had a hand in Ed Sullivan's getting access to the Beatles, and Yoko admitting she actually agreed with Paul McCartney's assessment of the Two Virgins cover!

The most startling extra is seeing Yoko reading, word for word, her letter to the parole board in 2000, pleading with them to keep Lennon's killer, Mark David Chapman, behind bars. She refers to him once at the outset by his full name, and thereafter only as "the subject." If you don't get as choked up as she does, you must have a heart of stone. [PG-13] English, Dolby Digital 5.1; Spanish, Dolby Digital Stereo; letterboxed (1.78:1) and anamorphic widescreen, one dual-layer disc.

Postscript: Want more Lennon? John & Yoko: Give Peace a Song (Hip-O) is a fascinating documentary DVD produced in 2006 by the CBC about the infamous 1969 bed-in in a Montreal hotel room that begat "Give Peace a Chance." Archival footage of Lennon speaking with Canadian journalists and new interviews with bed-in participants like producer André Perry and singer/comedian Tom Smothers lend more insight into Lennon's activism and creative spirit.

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