Boring Saint

Boring Saint

Variety‘s Phil Gallo starts out telling it straight and true about David Leaf and John Scheinfeld‘s The U.S. vs. John Lennon (Lionsgate, 9.15) in his Venice Film Festival review, but then he begins to equivocate and cottonball. As does the film itself.

Here are my three main arguments with the documentary, which Lionsgate will release on 9.15 after showings at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, along with Gallo’s review:
(a) The doc does “persuasively chronicle an artist sticking to his guns through activism” as the U.S. government conspired to kick Lennon out of this country in the early ’70s as a way of getting back at him for using his celebrity to stir up sentiments against the U.S. military’s fighting of the Vietnam War. And Gallo is dead right in saying that “by getting Ono to cooperate and open the vaults, the storyline follows the Ono-approved bio that posits Lennon as saint, excising his dark periods and their years apart, which could have enhanced the portrait.”

The Lennon portrayed in this film is indeed scrubbed clean and phony as a three-dollar bill, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Leaf decided on this portrait — Lennon as a kind-of St. Francis of the anti-war movement, a guy who did nothing but good things and spoke only of love and peace and stopping the killing — under the influence of his and Scheinfeld’s alliance with Lennon’s widow.
I call it the “Curse of Ono” — the more control she seems to have over any portrait of the late ex-Beatle, the more sugar-coated it turns out.
Like anyone else, Lennon was a mixed bag — part genius, part beautiful guy, part angry guy, part saint, part asshole, part man-of-courage, part prima donna, part gifted troubadour, part abusive drunk (during his 1974 “lost weekend” phase), part mystical seeker. But you only get the positive stuff from Leaf-Scheinfeld-Ono. And after an hour or so of the vigilant, heroic, positive-minded Lennon, you want to barf.

It’s almost like listening to a speech by Big Brother: “John Lennnon was God’s gift…better than most of us…learn from his story…praise the good things he did for this country…follow in his footsteps!”
There’s nothing more boring and infuriating, even, than a doc determined to sweeten and sanitize the truth. Anyone who knows anything about the real John Lennon, warts and all, will be shifting in their seat and going slowly mad.
(b) 40 Lennon songs — 37 from his solo career — “are used pointedly [and] out of chronological order and tied to the visuals thematically,” Gallo notes with some approval. He’s wrong to wink at this. The out-of-chronology thing is bad, but what really hurts are the painfully on-the-nose cues that intro the playing of each tune. Thematic links between what we’re seeing or hearing about Lennon on-screen and the songs that pop up a few seconds later are almost enough to turn a longtime Lennon fan off his music for life.
The idea in stuffing so many songs onto the soundtrack, of course, is to market a new double-album, which, of course, Ono and VH1 (which partly financed the pic) will profit from. I appreciate that there are many tens of thousands of GenXers, twenty-somethings and teenagers who barely know Lennon’s stuff and will be turned on to his music by this film, and that’s fine…but if you already know the songs and the drill, it’s truly awful to hear them re-played alongside a series of dreadfully clunky biographical observations.

(c) The film completely ignores the biggest irony that naturally goes with any look at Lennon’s life as an engaged, socially involved artist and agitator, and so does Gallo. I’m speaking of the apparent reason Lennon was killed by Mark David Chapman on 12.8.80, which had to do with Chapman, a psychotic nerd and homicidal asshole, deciding that Lennon had to pay the price for withdrawing from being the courageous and nervy “John Lennon” of legend and turning into a house-husband, abandoning his musical career, ceasing his political activism, etc.
In short, Leaf and Scheinfeld’s movie celebrates what a brave and commendable guy Lennon was when he got into a standoff with the government, but doesn’t even acknowledge that his abrupt withdrawal from this activity, from occupying his persona as Lennon-the-bold-and-outspoken, is what ended his life. They could have spoken to some friend or biographer who could have at least mentioned this (without giving Chapman’s motive any respect, I mean)…but the irony never surfaces. It isn’t even breathed upon.


qui

11 thoughts on “Boring Saint

  1. I caught the trailer for this recently and it certainly whiffed of all that. I have a huge problem with Lennon myself. I noted with some amusement that when Neil Young sang Imagine on that post 9/11 telethon he changed the lyric from “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can” to “I wonder if I can”. I always found it pretty tough to take too, Neil. It’s pretty much my problem with Lennon in a nutshell and why I’ll be steering clear of this doc.

  2. //…his abrupt withdrawal from this activity, from occupying his persona as Lennon-the-bold-and-outspoken, is what ended his life.//
    Rubbish. A cowardly murderer ended his life. Why should anyone take Chapman’s absurd rationalizations serioiusly?

  3. Seriously, Jeff. One look at Chapman’s overfed face and clothes choices should tell you the idiot didn’t know what he was talking about.
    Now tell us about that aborted race war The Beatles tried to start. A lunatic said it so it must be true.

  4. The problem I have with the idea of this is that it seemed to make the antiwar movement the exclusive property of Mr. John Lennon. (That’s from the trailer, not the film, so who knows.) My memory of the time period is of a lot of people being against the war, and Lennon being a somewhat marginal figure doing little performance art things off at the side; sure, it had some impact that a Beatle did this, but not more than Walter Cronkite, or Bobby Kennedy, or Martin Luther King Jr., or Joan Baez, or the Berrigans, etc. etc.; the peace movement was a BIG thing with many facets, and reducing it to Nixon Vs. Lennon is a distortion.

  5. Boring Saint
    Sexy but overly-cluttered Dahlia
    Already reviewed as mixed Hollywoodland…..Venice sure isn’t a festival of rejects Muller, eh!

  6. The problem I have with the idea of this is that it seemed to make the antiwar movement the exclusive property of Mr. John Lennon. (That’s from the trailer, not the film, so who knows.) My memory of the time period is of a lot of people being against the war, and Lennon being a somewhat marginal figure doing little performance art things off at the side; sure, it had some impact that a Beatle did this, but not more than Walter Cronkite, or Bobby Kennedy, or Martin Luther King Jr., or Joan Baez, or the Berrigans, etc. etc.; the peace movement was a BIG thing with many facets, and reducing it to Nixon Vs. Lennon is a distortion.

  7. Glad this film is being seen for what it is.
    I love Lennon’s music and as an artist he was unparalled. I’ve done the Abbey Road visit etc.
    But Saint John he was not and it seems the true Beatles fans know this. In fact, their imperfections are part of the appeal.
    Sad too, because I quite like the Imagine doc, but times have changed and with the doc being as political as it is, to just give the whitewash version ultimately makes it rather useless.
    Another shrimp on the anti-American agit-prop barbie.

  8. As Elvis Costello sang “Wasn’t it a millionaire who said ‘imagine no possessions?’”
    That’s not meant as a total swipe at Lennon. His voice may be my favorite aural sound on this earth. His clever genius for wordplay and his movement for positive social change continue to be inspiring.
    But he was a three-dimensional figure in a three-dimensional world. To whitewash him in an easy agit-prop movie does a disservice to him and his fans.

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