NOT BIGGER THAN JESUS

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Posted November 19, 2007 in Film

You can see the transformation in his face: the cheeks gone gaunt, the twinkle in his eye now looking like a challenge, the famous glossy hair gone to seed, long and lank. Wearing his loose white caftans, it’s clear: it’s 1969, and John Lennon has become Jesus.

Documentarians David Leaf and John Scheinfeld have bought the messianic moptop’s makeover wholeheartedly and attempt to sell it back to audiences in this shifty film that suggests that Lennon was Public Enemy #1 to the Nixon Administration. His crime? Threatening to sway the 1972 presidential election—the first one to let 18, 19 and 20-year-olds cast ballots. His weapons? Conceptual art and catchy tunes. (Everybody now: “All we are saaaaaying . . .”)

That John Lennon wanted an end to the Vietnam War is unassailable. So did 66% of Americans. And it’s equally clear that Lennon had no more power to change the tide of 1972 than Ringo Starr. Nixon beat the noble anti-war candidate George McGovern in a landslide, sweeping every state except Massachusetts. Sometime in New York City, Lennon’s political album from the same year, was soundly drubbed and neglected. Glossing over this, Leaf and Scheinfeld are capitalizing on three decades of distance to tout myth, not fact, as they pile up some entertaining archival clips and turn them into a pedestal.

Beyond his musical talent, John Lennon’s best contribution to the anti-war effort was himself. He lived in the headlines, sighing that the media wouldn’t give him and Yoko peace, but making sure their cameras captured his every opinion. His presence ensured publicity, and as activist Tariq Ali says, Lennon wasn’t about to “stand here and do nothing.” Instead, Lennon lounged in hotels and did nothing, with his Hair Peace/Bed Peace bed-ins. Later, he roused himself to post blithe billboards across several continents that chirped “WAR IS OVER (if you want it).” That most people did want war over, yet war still raged, reduces his “edgy” statement to condescending nonsense—let them eat platitudes. While anonymous students and veterans marched in the streets, this film gives us Lennon and wife Yoko Ono squatting in a bag surrounded by newsmen. They couldn’t be more insulated from reality.

What makes Leaf and Scheinfeld’s panegyric so maddening is the knowledge that there were hundreds of thousands of men and women who shared his convictions, but lacked his wealth or access. These people got jail sentences, pepper sprayings and beatings—punishments Lennon never faced. To suggest, as the film does, that Lennon be ranked with Gandhi and MLK is rankling to those who believe that there’s more to martyrhood than a bullet and more to courage than lying in bed with a guitar.

“You don’t think you’ve saved a single life?” chides an incredulous reporter to Lennon two-thirds into the documentary. It’s a fair enough question, but its presence is designed to draw hisses, as are clips of Geraldo Rivera (who calls Lennon a “tool”) and Nixon baddie G. Gordon Liddy, who gleefully recounts using a protester’s peace candle to light his cigar. The worst he, J. Edgar Hoover and Strom Thurmond did was have the INS give Lennon a hard time about a 1968 pot conviction; unlike the filmmakers, they realized that the rock star was little more than a figurehead with some worrisome friends like Abbie Hoffman and the Black Panthers.

Ultimately, Lennon was a symbol, not an activist. A symbol’s power lies in a person’s ability to ascribe traits to it that it might not necessarily have. To the Nixon administration, he stood for all the young, smart rebels who might throw them out of office—though Lennon couldn’t even cast a vote. To the rebels themselves, they wanted to believe that he shared their thoughts, a loving, but logical error best expressed when Born on the Fourth of July’s Ron Kovic wistfully speculates while watching the police brutalize marchers on television that “perhaps John Lennon had tears streaming down his face that night as I did.”

So much of this film’s case is built on speculation, his own feelings of being watched, Yoko Ono’s intonation that she and Lennon avoided a 1971 trip to Florida because they had a “feeling” they were in danger of their lives. In the last line of the film, she curiously pluralizes the by-all-accounts unpolitical killer Mark David Chapman by saying “They tried to kill John Lennon, but they couldn’t because his message is still alive.” It’s a touching line that, like most everything else in the film, crumbles under heavy innuendo and mythology. So much in this documentary begs us to elevate Lennon to martyrdom, but forty years ago, he got crucified for comparing himself to Jesus. Let’s not make the same mistake.


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