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A provocative and compelling look at John Lennon's transformation from beloved musical artist to anti-war activist to iconic inspiration for peace. Biographers David Leaf and John Scheinfeld reveal the true story of the U.S. Government’s attempt to silence Lennon, showing that this was not just an isolated episode in American history but that the issues and struggles of that era remain relevant today. Featuring appearances by Carl Bernstein, Noam Chomsky, Walter Cronkite, Mario Cuomo, Angela Davis, John Dean, Ron Kovic, G. Gordon Liddy, George McGovern, Bobby Seale, Tommy Smothers, Gore Vidal, Yoko Ono and others.
 

 The U.S. vs. John Lennon

David:

No movie happens overnight. And for the better part of a decade, this film is one that John Scheinfeld and I have been developing, passionately believing that the story at the core of The U.S. vs. John Lennon, a rarely-discussed chapter in U.S. and Beatles history, needed to be told. But until we actually began production last year, we had no idea of the adventures we would have, the kind of magical moments that are at the heart of the documentary process.

I'm thinking of how former Senator George McGovern, completely to our surprise and joy, started singing a Lennon song. You'll see that in the movie. Or how when asked about "Imagine," Angela Davis conjured up a moment from her childhood that was so moving she asked for a copy of the tape to send to her mother as a Christmas present. That story will be in the bonus material on the DVD, as will G. Gordon Liddy's description of his and my political points of view.

Almost every interview yielded that kind of unexpected cinematic gold, and the process of turning those nuggets into a compelling narrative is one reason that documentary filmmaking is so rewarding.

But for me, the film's first dramatic moment begins with a weather cliché—it was March 2005, a wet, late winter morning providing a perfect chill for the fear I felt as I exited a cab at 72nd St. and Central Park West. Standing on the southeast side of the street catty-corner from the Dakota (the apartment building made famous in Rosemary's Baby), I stood and stared at our future. On the verge of starting production, I was on my way to meet with Yoko Ono Lennon to discuss how we wanted...needed…her to participate in this film.

I was frozen. And not just from the cold rain. I was about to cross the street to walk over the spot where John Lennon had been murdered 25 years previously, step on the sidewalk and through the entrance which, in my mind, was still splattered with the blood of the fallen icon, to meet with a woman who by all reputation was one of the most formidable people in the world.

That was a lot of emotional baggage to carry across the street, and I knew that if I went to the meeting with that in my head, it would be a disaster. What to do? As I stood and stared, I began to think differently.

After all, I "spun” myself, the story of our movie was a heroic one, "two against the world," John and Yoko willing to stand up to the powerful and (soon to be) criminal presidency of Richard Nixon...willing to risk everything they had for their campaign for peace. I was there to tell her about a movie in which she and her late husband had displayed uncommon courage. Who wouldn't want to hear that? And, I continued to spin myself, "You love meeting famous people." A shameful admission, sure, but in recent years, I have come to accept the fact that I just may be a human being.

Suddenly, my head cleared. As a friend later told me, it was my moment of Jewbu ("Jewish Buddhism," he explained). Confidently, I strode across the street, and you'll see the result of our request for Yoko's participation in the film.

John:

I love my job. Writing, directing and producing are, in equal measure, exasperating and exhilarating, stressful and stimulating, irritating and inspiring.

Among the most inspiring moments are the unexpected stories that emerge during an interview. For example, U.K. activist/journalist Tariq Ali (as charming and witty as he is articulate and perceptive) shared his memory of John Lennon singing "Power to the People" to him over the phone. And Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Carl Bernstein informed us, just as tape rolled, that years before Watergate, he had been the Washington Post music critic, and he went on to express very strong opinions on the Beatles and called Lennon "the greatest white rock and roll singer ever." Or the afternoon Bobby Seale treated us to a personal and in-depth history of the Black Panthers betwixt and between answering our Lennon-related questions.

But what I enjoy most is when I take on the role of detective. No, not garden variety Law and Order and CSI, although the concept is the same. For this film it meant relentlessly and ruthlessly scouring the world for the rarest, most unusual and unseen audio/visual material about John and Yoko.

For example, we found some footage pertaining to the Beatles' "Jesus Controversy," but we needed a lot more to make that sequence truly compelling. We were told time and again by various news archives that such footage did not exist. I refused to take "No" for an answer. After several months of the production team making total pests of ourselves in countless phone calls and emails, two reels of film were discovered in the far corner of a news archive where it had lain unseen since it was shot in 1966. The sense of triumph is palpable when you “find the unfindable” and there were "high fives" all around.

Footage of John actually receiving his green card was more problematic. Again we were told it didn't exist. Yet, photos taken that critical day reveal that local TV cameras were, in fact, present. For nine months, we kept at it, unable to believe that, as we'd been told, all footage had been lost or destroyed. Finally, with mere weeks to go before our movie was finished, it was déjà vu all over again. Misfiled, mislabeled, the footage was found and now makes for an unforgettable moment near the end of the film.

In the years since we first conceived this documentary, the U.S.’s place in the world has changed dramatically. But one thing that continues to speak to all of us is the campaign for peace that John and Yoko led, and its enduring impact on society.