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FALL SNEAKS | `The U.S. vs. John Lennon'

Haunting prescience and a plea for peace

September 10, 2006|Melissa Pamer | Times Staff Writer

DOCUMENTARIANS David Leaf and John Scheinfeld had long wanted to make a feature film about what they called "the secret war against John Lennon," but no one was biting.

The pair -- Beatlemaniacs in their youth -- were intrigued by FBI and Nixon administration attempts to silence Lennon's antiwar activism and have the legendary rocker deported. But the filmmakers, who started pitching the project in the mid-1990s, were discouraged by the lack of interest. Then history intervened.

"It wasn't until post-9/11 that people saw the contemporary relevance of this story," said Scheinfeld, who shared writing, producing and directing credits with Leaf. "Look at the main story points: You have an unpopular war, a lying president, illegal wiretapping. And you're called unpatriotic if you protest against it."

Despite any current parallels, Leaf and Scheinfeld decided early on not to refer to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, they focused on the details of Lennon's conversion from pop star to international activist, his marriage to Yoko Ono, their efforts to promote peace, and the media's relationship with the couple.

"As David and I were looking at virtually every piece of tape on Lennon, we saw a guy with no handlers. No one was telling him what to say," Scheinfeld said. "He was truly speaking what he felt -- and that makes him unique."

The documentary, opening Friday in L.A., tells the story through Ono's voice and those of other notables of the period, including a slate of heavy hitters from Angela Davis to G. Gordon Liddy. The interviews are complemented by a range of Beatles and Lennon tunes. George McGovern's version of "Give Peace a Chance" was an unsolicited contribution that delighted the interviewers.

After an early screening of the movie, Leaf said a young woman approached him and said, "I'm really angry. Where's our John Lennon?"

That's the kind of reaction Leaf and Scheinfeld are hoping for: They want viewers to engage in dialogue afterward, and they want them to be inspired.

"Regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, it should make you think," Leaf said.

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