In the early ’70s, when John Lennon’s attorneys were battling to keep the controversial ex-Beatle from being deported, their enemies were all in Washington: Richard Nixon, J. Edgar Hoover, John Mitchell, and their underlings at the FBI, INS, and the Justice Department were determined to send Lennon packing.
Some 30 years later, when directors David Leaf and John Scheinfeld began making their documentary, The U.S. Vs. John Lennon, the focus again turned to Washington. This time, though, D.C. was more sympathetic to Lennon. Eric Kulberg and John Paige, the local music scene veterans who founded Universal Media in 1985, were enlisted to unearth historical footage and get copyright clearance to use it in the film, which opens in D.C. Friday, Sept. 29.
It’s a small field, and Universal Media is unusual in that it does the whole job. “There are people who research, and then there are people who do clearances,” says Kulberg. “We do both.”
Universal Media’s work often involves both music and video, longtime interests of the firm’s founders. The 61-year-old Kulberg is a former Channel 5 producer-director and WAMU DJ who started working in TV as a high-school sophomore in Alaska; the 55-year-old Paige was a DJ at Georgetown University’s now-defunct radio station who helped book the 9:30 Club in its early days. Of the two, only Paige is a lawyer, but Kulberg says he “just sort of picked up on copyright law, because I got involved years ago in helping people restore copyrights.”
“People wanted to know who owned something,” he recalls. “That’s what a lot of this is. People say, ‘I’ve got a copy of the film,’ but that doesn’t mean they own it.”
Universal Media does mostly music-related work, with such clients as the Smithsonian Institution and Sony Legacy. (The company found the footage for the DVD extras on the Byrds box set released earlier this month.) But for The U.S. Vs. John Lennon, Kulberg notes, “We didn’t have to worry too much about the musical performance footage, because Yoko had most of that in her archives. Our main role was to come up with the news footage that helps support the story.”
That encompassed not only clips of Lennon in the early 1970s—including appearances on Mike Douglas and Dick Cavett’s TV shows—but also such earlier stuff as news coverage of the boycott that followed Lennon’s remarks that his band was “more popular than Jesus” and an interview in which the pre-hippie Beatles were asked their opinion of the Vietnam War.
Kulberg has known Leaf since the latter was a George Washington University student, and the two are longtime friends. So it was natural for the filmmakers to bring Kulberg and Paige into the project in its early stages. “David and John just bounced the directions that they were thinking about going with the storyline,” Kulberg says. “They wanted to know if we could come up with things visually to cover the story. We assumed the things existed. But we didn’t know until we got into how hard it was going to be to find some of the news footage. We didn’t realize how much stuff has been destroyed. It’s pretty depressing.”
Like many D.C. residents whose specialties involve documentary film, Kulberg cites the proximity of the Library of Congress and the National Archives as “extremely handy.” He also notes that being on the East Coast allows him to talk to European contacts in the morning and California ones in the afternoon. Aside from that, he admits, “with what we do, we could live anywhere. But I’ve been here since ’63,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a tough town to leave.” —Mark Jenkins