C&L's November Film of the Month Review:"20 To Life: The Life and Times of John Sinclair" Documentary reviewed by Mark Groubert “Apathy isn’
November 30, 2007

C&L's November Film of the Month Review:"20 To Life: The Life and Times of John Sinclair"
Documentary reviewed by Mark Groubert

“Apathy isn’t it. And we can do something. So flower power didn’t work. So what! We start again.”
John Lennon

John Sinclair Freedom Rally, Crisler Arena, Michigan - December 10, 1971.

If it was up to Richard Nixon, 20 To Life: The Life and Times of John Sinclair, a documentary by Steve Gebhardt, would never have seen the light of day. Hired as the private experimental filmmaker for John Lennon and Yoko Ono back in 1971, Gebhardt was working on a full-length music video to help promote Lennon’s upcoming album, Imagine when he and Lennon heard about the benefit concert to help free political activist John Sinclair from prison.
Sinclair, head of the White Panther Party, manager of the seminal rock band the MC5 and one of the leading radical elements of the Midwest had been targeted by Detroit undercover cops who arrested him for passing two joints. Facing 20 years to life and actually sentenced to 9 1/2 years for the crime, Sinclair became the focus of a huge benefit concert at the Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan featuring John Lennon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Seeger, Phil Ochs, MC-5, Allen Ginsberg, Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen, Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels and others.
Over 20,000 people attended the show.
Having already spent nearly three years behind bars, John Sinclair was freed from prison just three days after the event.

Talk about All Power To The People.

With never before seen performance footage of many of those listed above, including John Lennon himself, 20 To Life, is worth the price of admission. The film, now available for the first time on DVD, had its beginnings as a full length concert film originally entitled Ten For Two. It ran for one week in London before being pulled from the theatre in 1973. There it died from intimidation. John Lennon, the film’s ad hoc producer did not want to make his immigration and political situation in America any worse by distributing the film across the pond. Two years prior, due to the success of the John Sinclair Freedom Rally, Lennon and others had concocted a plan to shadow then President Richard Nixon with a series of roving rock concerts as he ran for re-election. This musical protest plan landed John Lennon on Nixon’s infamous enemies list (See U.S. vs John Lennon). With the looming threat of deportation hanging over his head Lennon eventually scaled back his political activities and retreated into fatherhood, Central Park, heroin and eventually a fatal gunshot wound in 1980.

But this film is not about the legendary John Lennon.
It’s about the legendary John Sinclair.
No longer just a cultural footnote to the 1960’s, Sinclair is now acknowledged as one of its cultural benchmarks.

Born in 1941 in Flint, Michigan, Sinclair could be considered the counter-cultural mentor of another famous Flint native – activist filmmaker Michael Moore (Indeed, Moore once told this reviewer that Sinclair’s mother, the progressive Elsie Sinclair, had been his English teacher at Davison High School from which both he and Sinclair graduated). Sinclair helped restructure the Fifth Estate, the Detroit underground newspaper that continues to this day. He also helped form the Detroit Artists Workshop Press, which published Work magazine.

Between 1966 and 1969, Sinclair, himself a horn player in the style of Albert Ayler and Roland Kirk, befriended and managed a local hard rock band called the MC5. Under his political guidance, the band embraced the revolutionary politics of the Black Panther Party, actually forming an offshoot called the White Panther Party. Their politics were not merely theoretical. They were street-wise, hard edged and at times, explosive.
The band, which would receive a major record deal with Elektra Records, took target practice with members of the Black Panthers, were involved in a series of bombings, and more famously, became the house band at the local Grande Ballroom where they performed their hit song, the raucous “Kick Out The Jams, Motherfuckers.
In August of 1968, Sinclair took the band to Chicago to perform outside the National Democratic Convention. While the whole world was watching, Sinclair, the MC5 and thousands of other protestors became victims of a police riot ordered by then Mayor Richard Daley.

In July, 1969, Sinclair, quickly becoming a national figure, was sentenced to 9 ½ years for giving 2 joints to an undercover officer. As thousands of stoned counter culture critters attended the famous Woodstock Music Festival a month later, a fed up Yippie activist named Abbie Hoffman seized the mike while Pete Townsend and The Who were tuning up. He screamed, “This is a pile of shit while John Sinclair rots in prison.”
(Townsend took the opportunity to stab Hoffman in the neck with the neck of his guitar.)

While in prison, Sinclair penned his book, Guitar Army, which, like fellow activist Jerry Rubin’s Do It!, and Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book, served as cultural comic book manifestos to their loyal followers.

By December of 1971, with Sinclair in prison almost three years and no end in sight, supporters launched a massive “Free John Now Rally” to be held at the Crisler Arena in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Lennon, the headliner, sang his recently penned song, John Sinclair calling on prison officials to "Let him be, set him free. Let him be like you and me.”

Three days after the concert, the Michigan Supreme Court did just that. They overturned Sinclair’s conviction and set him free to a different America than he had left. His case was a landmark in the reduction of drug sentencing and the decriminalization of marijuana (In fact, it would lead to Ann Arbor having the most lenient marijuana possession laws in the country – a fine of five dollars for simple possession).

Returning to his avante-blues musical roots, Sinclair developed as a musical performance poet utilizing talented jazz sidemen as backup bands while touring the world and recording numerous albums.

Over the years has hosted his own award-winning radio shows, first in Detroit and then laater in New Orleans.

In 2004 Sinclair moved to Amsterdam where he now hosts a weekly radio show, appropriately titled; The John Sinclair Show.

He continues to tour and record with his band, the Blues Scholars and if you’re lucky, he’ll be coming to a venue near you.

Not everyone can say they have had a song written about them by a Beatle. Go ahead. Sing along.

John Sinclair
Artist: John Lennon
Album: John Lennon Anthology

It ain't fair, John Sinclair
In the stir for breathing air
Won't you care for John Sinclair?
In the stir for breathing air
Let him be, set him free
Let him be like you and me

They gave him ten for two
What else can the judges do?
Gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta,
gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta,
gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta,
gotta, gotta, gotta set him free

If he'd been a soldier man
Shooting gooks in Vietnam
If he was the CIA
Selling dope and making hay
He'd be free, they'd let him be
Breathing air, like you and me

They gave him ten for two
What else can the judges do?
Gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta,
gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta,
gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta,
gotta, gotta, gotta set him free

They gave him ten for two
They got Ali Otis too.
Gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta,
gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta,
gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta,
gotta, gotta, gotta set him free

Was he jailed for what he done?
Or representing everyone
Free John now, if we can
From the clutches of the man
Let him be, lift the lid
Bring him to his wife and kids

They gave him ten for two
What else can the bastards do?
Gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta,
gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta,
gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta,
gotta, gotta, gotta set him free

Long Live The Big Chief!

A screenwriter/producer/journalist based in Hollywood, California, Mark Groubert is the Senior Film and Book Reviewer for CrooksandLiars.com. As a filmmaker he has produced numerous documentaries for HBO. Groubert is also the former editor of National Lampoon Magazine, MTV Magazine and The Weekly World News. In addition, he writes for the L.A. Weekly, L.A. City Beat, Penthouse, High Times and other publications. He is currently at work on his memoirs…or so he says.

Can you help us out?

For 17 years we have been exposing Washington lies and untangling media deceit, but now Facebook is drowning us in an ocean of right wing lies. Please give a one-time or recurring donation, or buy a year's subscription for an ad-free experience. Thank you.


We are currently migrating to Disqus

On May 14, 2022, we started migrating our comments from Insticator back to Disqus. During this transition period, some posts will have Insticator and some Disqus. For more information on the transition, as well as information regarding old C&L accounts, please see this post.

We welcome relevant, respectful comments. Any comments that are sexist or in any other way deemed hateful by our staff will be deleted and constitute grounds for a ban from posting on the site. Please refer to our Terms of Service for information on our posting policy.