Though contemporary celebrities adopt causes like they’re stray kitties, precious few have the cojones to take political stances in today’s “patriotic” landscape. John Lennon, however, never gave a flying fuck when it came to flipping off the establishment. Already a countercultural icon when 1968’s summer of hate rolled around, the radicalized post-Beatles Lennon and wife Yoko Ono staged absurdist antiwar demonstrations in their honeymoon suite and brought Black Panther Bobby Seale on The Mike Douglas Show. Nixon’s dirty-tricks committee took notice, and tried to deport the adopted New Yorker. History later awarded that President instant karma, and the musician enjoyed some good years in Gotham before a tragic end.
A tribute to Lennon as a media manipulator and man of principle, David Leaf and John Scheinfeld’s documentary works best as a Cliffs Notes history of the era’s dissent. Talking heads like Ron Kovic and Angela Davis weigh in on the significance of speaking out, which gives context to Lennon chanting hippie-dippy slogans and hurling vitriol. If only the film were as bold as its subject: Produced by VH1, it sticks to the channel’s music-doc modus operandi of pop-up graphics, interview-heavy transitions and spots carved out for commercial breaks. Considering the tacky handling of Lennon’s murder (overly loud gunshots are a little tasteless here, fellas), perhaps the overall adherence to formula was a blessing. Still, for anyone who thinks the working-class hero just wrote “I Am the Walrus,” the movie is a nice eye-opener, if not a call to arms.—David Fear
(Opens Fri; see Now Playing for venues.)