John Scheinfeld, co-creator of the new documentary U.S. vs. John Lennon, introduced the film at this year's Telluride Film Festival with an entertaining anecdote. Butterflies in his stomach, he arrived at the Dakota--the long-time home of John and Yoko and site of Lennon's 1980 assassination--to show Ono the first cut and found a strange juxtaposition. Filming a no doubt empty vessel of a Hollywood film out front was Lindsey Lohan, seemingly oblivious to the important historical building looming above.
The story would be funny, were it not so sadly emblematic of our times. Unlike the man that U.S. vs. John Lennon so skillfully brings back to life, today's pop stars are dead when it comes to politics. Lennon didn't set out to be an activist, let alone an international political figure, but when he realized the kind of power that he had inherited by virtue of being a rock star, he courageously accepted the double-burden. I wish I could say the same of more than a few celebrities that grace the pages and fill the air time of our fame-obsessed corporate media. Instead I look around at the pop icons of my generation--I am 26--and see nothing but blank stares and giggles.
One of the many talking heads featured in the film, photographer David Fenton aptly described Lennon's methodology as the "conscious use of one's myth to project a political goal." Lennon knew that the fan freak-out, tear-stained success of the Beatles had catapulted him--basically an orphan from England--into a strange and powerful place. Cameras were constantly poised in his direction, ready to record his every move and word. Young people hung on each of his opinions and ideas as if they were gospel. Indeed, the film features trademark footage of a playful John entertaining the idea that he may be "more popular than Jesus."
Like his bearded competition from Bethlehem, Lennon didn't shy away from the fate of great men. Instead, he seized every opportunity to advocate peace because as he said in the film, "If I'm going to get on the front page, I might as well get on with the word peace." He mounted controversial performance art projects to get the world's attention, my favorite of which was "bed peace," his and Ono's honeymoon vigil in their Parisian hotel bed for days on end.
I relished every minute of the film, but honestly, it also made me feel horribly hopeless. I came of age along with MTV in the most celebrity-obsessed era in history. Because of advances in technology and the increase in publications and programs aimed at documenting every sniff, scratch, and shit of today's icons, there are more opportunities than ever before to get a political message out via the rising star of fame. And who do we have embracing the double-burden? Who do we have milking his or her myth for a political aim?
Almost no one. Bono, of course, comes to mind, but only because he is an anomaly among a sea of smoking, partying, apathy-cases. Angelina, yes, takes her trips to various third-world countries and brings back a baby from each. A handful of stars have jumped on the patronizing Africa bandwagon, getting their photo-ops with adorable black babies at the AIDS orphanage and then heading home so they won't miss the latest episode of "American Idol."
But all of this is heavily-orchestrated with publicity reps, very temporary, and terribly uncreative--with the shining exception of George Clooney's 2005 movies and Kayne West's wonderful blurt, "George Bush doesn't care about black people," during a Hurricane Katrina benefit commercial. Most of the time, today's stars will only rush in when they know the press is good or the cause uncontroversial, but when it comes to really taking a stand, the Hollywood choir is mute.
Last time I checked there was a violent and messy war going on, much like that being waged during Lennon's time. But unlike the 70s, the 00s are almost absent of famous truth-tellers. Nearly 3,000 U.S. soldiers have lost their lives and over 100,000 Iraqi civilians. And yet the recent MTV Video Music Awards--watched by 5.8 million worldwide--included only one single line of political opposition, sung by pop star Pink, before she quickly moved on to give the award for Best Rock Video.
The U.S. vs. John Lennon features a haunting campaign ad for Richard Nixon in 1968 where he declared, "Never has so much power been used so ineffectively." Of course the current day parallel to our own president popped up, but shortly thereafter, it was our outrageously rich and silent celebrities that came to mind.