Imagine all the controversy: How Lennon took on the US


THINK of John Lennon in the early 1970s and you probably conjure up an image of the former Beatle living in America as a hippie activist, singing "Give peace a chance". He was an icon to millions, but he was also easily ridiculed - hardly the kind of threat to national security that would warrant FBI surveillance and a campaign to silence his dissenting views by deporting him from the country.

This, however, is exactly what was happening to him during that period. While the public read about him staging press conferences, with Yoko Ono, inside paper bags, Lennon's phones were being tapped and men in dark suits were following him around his adopted home of New York. What's more, he was embroiled in a battle with the US government's department of immigration to prevent his visa being revoked.

"It was very little known in the States when it happened," says John Scheinfeld, the co-director of The US vs John Lennon, a new documentary detailing Lennon's struggles with the American government during that period. "Rolling Stone magazine had broken just a small piece of the story back in 1974, but they didn't really have the context and it was another 20 years before the whole picture became clear."

As the film documents, there was a very real basis for the government's paranoia regarding Lennon's influence. Though Richard Nixon won the 1972 presidential election by a landslide, back in the spring of that year there had been no guarantees of victory. Lennon had already demonstrated the power of mixing pop with politics by headlining a benefit concert to successfully free John Sinclair, a left-wing activist who'd been given a ten-year prison sentence in 1969 for supplying two joints to an undercover cop. Galvanised by this, the anti-war movement had begun formulating a plan for a major concert-tour-cum-protest rally featuring Lennon (and possibly Bob Dylan) that would follow the Nixon campaign around the country.

"Most people don't remember that 1972 was the first year 18 to 21-year-olds could vote, which added approximately 11 million new voters, most of whom were probably Beatles fans," explains Scheinfeld.

"I think someone in the White House was very concerned that he could make a difference in the election."

Indeed, the ruthless campaign of intimidation that followed had its successes (the concert tour never happened, Nixon was elected), but it didn't completely silence Lennon. The film serves up a wealth of footage showing him defending his beliefs with great wit and intelligence in the face of governmental pressure and a cynical media. Scheinfeld reckons that was what made Lennon unique: "He was fearless. He was advancing his message in spite of what the government would do to him, in spite of any possible career-killing consequences. He did it because in his mind it was right and it had to be done."

While Yoko Ono was initially cagey about the film (she eventually granted full access to her personal archives and the rights to use 40 Lennon songs), the biggest obstacle Scheinfeld had to overcome was indifference. He first tried to get it made a decade ago, but the project didn't get off the ground until after 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, when once again celebrities - George Clooney and country music stars the Dixie Chicks among them - were branded traitors for speaking out against the Bush administration. "I think people began to see there was a contemporary relevance to this story for audiences," says Scheinfeld. "Suddenly these issues were on everyone's radar."