20 to Life: The Life and Times of John Sinclair

Stuart Henderson

There is no lesson here, moral or otherwise, nor is there anything of an examination of the spirit of the man at the center of it all.

20 to Life: The Life and Times of John Sinclair

Director: Steve Gebhardt
Cast: With appearances by John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Allen Ginsberg, MC-5, Up, Ed Sanders
Distributor: MVD
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 2007
US DVD Release Date: 2007-10-30

John Sinclair is a relic from another time. He’s an artifact -- a living, breathing, pot-fuming trinket from that drawer full of oddities that was the late '60s. A Detroit-based Beat kid by the early '60s, Sinclair had graduated to pot and protest by mid-decade, positioning himself at the centre of the Motor City’s radical scene before gaining national prominence as manager for the flash-in-the-pan rock band the MC-5.

Always enamored of black America-- a kind of superficial, but reverent, obsession with black “authenticity” coloured his worldview -- he would establish the revolutionary White Panthers in solidarity with the much more famous Black Panther Party, whom he worshipped. He would then find his celebrity underlined when he was jailed for possession of two measly joints of marijuana for what was, at least at first, supposed to be 20 years-to-life in the penitentiary.

Suddenly re-cast as a political prisoner, it was widely believed among radicals on the hip left that he had really been imprisoned because of his outspoken politics, a campaign raged to free Sinclair from Jacksonville prison. As years passed, many great heroes of the age came to his aid, culminating in a massive concert and benefit headlined by John Lennon and Yoko Ono in late 1971. In no way as a result of this agitation and protest, he would eventually be released after some thirty months behind bars.

There is a film to be made about John Sinclair, but this rambling bit of hagiography sure isn’t it.

An amateurish documentary like this has only one real purpose, nostalgia. There is no lesson here, moral or otherwise, nor is there anything of an examination of the spirit of the man at the center of it all. Indeed, even the times in which he was influential (a brief period from about 1966-1971) aren’t given more than a cursory contextualization. As a record of Detroit’s radical scene it is perhaps useful, but if you know anything of the history of the Artist Workshop, the MC-5 or the White Panthers before coming in, you won’t be much enlightened on your way out. Sadly, this is yet another film on the 1960s with nothing new to offer, no fresh perspectives, no real insight. It’s just a bland, even pathetic, requiem for an idealized youth.

Why do so many films, books, and record albums which set out to explore that turbulent period wind up telling the same old tired stories? Why do they so often present a celebratory vision of a man (or, occasionally, woman) at the centre of some vibrant movement, which, inevitably, inexorably, falls apart by 1975? 20 to Life operates as a tribute to John Sinclair, a man whom the filmmaker clearly admires, and as a result offers no critical distance. This is perhaps why we feel so uncomfortable watching the final 40 minutes of the film (the section covering the 30-odd years since Sinclair’s release and, let’s face it, the moment when he ceased to be relevant in any meaningful way). Moving from city to city, eventually finding a home in an Amsterdam coffee house (where, in what amounts to the climax of the film, we see him sitting around smoking legal pot for the first time), Sinclair winds up looking like a guy who used to be pretty cool, but now seems kind of lame. I mean this is a man whose whole struggle is happily reduced here to some celebratory toking on an absurdly huge joint.

And so, as we watch this aged hippie, his wild white hair shooting clownlike in all directions, spouting mediocre “Beat” poetry with his blues and free jazz bands, pulling on doobies the size a baby’s arm, and clinging to a vague don’t-tread-on-me ideology, we, well, cringe. He’s constantly talking, this “cultural warrior”, this “poet-provocateur”, but he isn’t saying much of anything. Is this what the film is supposed to be about? Is this the legacy of the radical left? One shudders to think.


The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Electronic music is one of the broadest-reaching genres by design, and 2017 highlights that as well as any other year on record. These are the 20 best albums.

20. Vitalic - Voyager (Citizen)

Pascal Arbez-Nicolas (a.k.a. Vitalic) made waves in the French Touch electro-house scene with his 2005 debut, OK Cowboy, which had a hard-hitting maximalist sound, but several albums later, Voyager finds him launching into realms beyond at his own speed. The quirky, wallflower vocals and guitar snippets employed throughout Voyager drop a funk that brings to mind WhoMadeWho or Matthew Dear if they had disco-pop injected between their toes. "Levitation" is as pure a slice of dance floor motivation as theoretically possible, a sci-fi gunfight with a cracking house beat sure to please his oldest fans, yet the album-as-form is equally effective in its more contemplative moments, like when Miss Kitten's vocals bring an ethereal dispassion to "Hans Is Driving" to balance out its somber vocoder or the heartfelt cover of "Don't Leave Me Now" by Supertramp. Voyager may infect you with a futuristic form of Saturday Night Fever, but afterwards, it gives you a hearty dose of aural acetaminophen to break it. - Alan Ranta

Keep reading... Show less

Hitchcock, 'Psycho', and '78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene'

Alfred Hitchock and Janet Leigh on the set of Psycho (courtesy of Dogwoof)

"... [Psycho] broke every taboo you could possibly think of, it reinvented the language of film and revolutionised what you could do with a story on a very precise level. It also fundamentally and profoundly changed the ritual of movie going," says 78/52 director, Alexandre O. Philippe.

The title of Alexandre O. Philippe's 78/52: Hitchcock's Shower Scene (2017) denotes the 78 set-ups and the 52 cuts across a full week of shooting for Psycho's (1960) famous shower scene. Known for The People vs. George Lucas (2010), The Life and Times of Paul the Psychic Octopus (2012) and Doc of the Dead (2014), Philippe's exploration of a singular moment is a conversational one, featuring interviews with Walter Murch, Peter Bogdanovich, Guillermo del Toro, Jamie Lee Curtis, Osgood Perkins, Danny Elfman, Eli Roth, Elijah Wood, Bret Easton Ellis, Karyn Kusama, Neil Marshall, Richard Stanley and Marli Renfro, body double for Janet Leigh.

Keep reading... Show less

Mary Poppins, Mrs. Gamp, Egyptian deities, a Japanese umbrella spirit, and a supporting cast of hundreds of brollies fill Marion Rankine's lively history.

"What can go up a chimney down but can't go down a chimney up?" Marion Rankine begins her wide-ranging survey of the umbrella and its significance with this riddle. It nicely establishes her theme: just as umbrellas undergo, in the everyday use of them, a transformation, so too looking at this familiar, even forgettable object from multiple perspectives transforms our view of it.

Keep reading... Show less

Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

In a staid city like Washington, D.C., too many concert programs still stick to the basics. An endless litany of Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky concerti clog the schedules and parades of overeager virtuosi seem unwilling to vary their repertoire for blasé D.C. concertgoers. But occasionally you encounter a concert that refreshes your perspective of the familiar. The works presented at The Kennedy Center on 25 October 2017 might be stalwarts of 20th century repertoire, but guest conductor Antonio Pappano, leading the Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, reminded us how galvanizing the canonical can still be. Though grandiose executions of Respighi's The Fountains of Rome and The Pines of Rome were the main event, the sold-out crowd gathered to see Martha Argerich perform one of her showpieces, Prokofiev's Third Piano Concerto. Those who regard the reclusive Argerich as one of the world's two or three greatest living pianists—classical or otherwise—would not have left the concert hall disillusioned.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.