It was 43 years ago that the Beatles burst into the American consciousness as cheeky, fresh-faced lads on The Ed Sullivan Show. But less than a decade after that flashpoint of exuberance, things turned decidedly grim for band leader-turned-peacenik John Lennon.
It was, in a nutshell, a hellish reversal from Beatlemania to Beatlenoia.
In The U.S. vs. John Lennon filmmakers John Scheinfeld and David Leaf probe an episode in music and social history not clear to even the most die-hard Beatles fans. The tale begins with a stack of documents six feet tall that show how the U.S. government under President Richard Nixon turned Lennon into a surveillance target. The papers didn’t go public until the mid-‘90s through the Freedom of Information Act. Even then Scheinfeld - a self-described “gigantic Beatles fan” - had trouble attracting interest in a documentary film about the bizarre campaign against Lennon.
“We tried to sell the film numerous times in the late `90s, and it didn’t go anywhere. It wasn’t until the post-9/11 ... world, that people began to see the issues in this film are just as relevant today as they were then,” Scheinfeld says. “And that’s when we got Lionsgate on board.”
To say that the Nixon administration went after Lennon is not conspiracy theory. It’s fact.
“They had tapped his phones, they had him under physical surveillance,” Scheinfeld says. “There are memos from FBI agents to the bureau discussing possible activities to neutralize Lennon. (Rolling Stone freelance writer) Joe Treen had found some evidence that they were going to mount a show trial against Lennon as a political dissident - and they were going to play songs of his to show he was disloyal. There was a possibility of staging a drug bust, because there was evidence he was a heavy drug user. There’s also a paper trail that leads all the way back to the White House showing constant updates on these efforts.”
The question remains: Why did Nixon, who was nudged by Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, come to view the ex-Beatle as a threat?
“There was a twisted logic to it,” Scheinfeld says. “1972 was the first year teenagers could vote and this added 11 million new voters to the pool. And the Nixon administration was very concerned that a man of Lennon’s stature could sway these people away from voting Republican. And that connects to the 1972 (presidential) election. It was just an extension of the `enemies list’ mindset - the general paranoia about retaining power.”
Speaking of paranoia, Lennon himself went through periods of it, as the film explores.
“We have film and audio clips of Lennon where he shows how he was aware of the (government) surveillance,” Scheinfeld says. “Paranoid is a good word for it; he would describe his feelings to his friends who would say, `Why would they do that?’ Even his immigration lawyer - who was a very conservative, traditional lawyer - found it hard to believe. But he was stunned when he saw what they were doing.”
An unintended consequence of the film, but one that Scheinfeld and Leaf welcome, is that audiences have drawn their own parallels between the Republican administration of 1972 and the one currently in the Oval Office today.
“At the heart of our story is an unpopular war, a president who lied to the country - and if you spoke out against the war, you were called unpatriotic,” Scheinfeld says. “Does that sound familiar?”