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A night of John Lennon on PBS

The biopic 'Lennon Naked' hangs its narrative on the Beatle's relationship with his long-absent father. Much better is 'LENNONYC,' a look at the musician's years in New York City with Yoko Ono.

November 22, 2010|By Robert Lloyd, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

John Lennon would have turned 70 this year, 30 years after he was murdered outside his New York apartment building. It is as hard to imagine the first fact — in this world, he was never older than 40 — as it is even now to believe the second. In the meantime, fellow former Fabs Paul and Ringo and even the prematurely departed George have taught us how Beatles look and act as they grow old. But Lennon, who died before he got old — though not, at least, before he grew up — has been frozen forever in time, an icon of what was and what never will be.

Called the Smart One, he was also the Deep One, the Angry One and the Arty One (although Beatle Paul likes to point out that he was arty too, and arty first). He wrote books and drew pictures. He was abandoned by his father, surrendered by his mother to the care of his aunt, and later left his own family for a Japanese avant-garde artist seven years his senior whom many still blame, with shocking vehemence, for the band breaking up. The perceived leader of the group and at times its loudest critic, he's the Beatle who most inspires explication.

"Lennon Naked," with Christopher Eccleston ( David Tennant's predecessor on "Doctor Who") in the title role, is the latest "fact-based" stab at getting inside the man inside the legend, joining a mini-genre that includes the movies "Backbeat," "The Hours and Times" and, currently in theaters, "Nowhere Boy." A PBS "Masterpiece" import airing Monday on KCET-TV alongside the "American Masters" film "LENNONYC," it is frequently "dramatic," though it doesn't much hang together as a drama and will be of interest mainly to Beatle completists and Eccleston fans, of whom there are, after all, more than a few.

Written by Robert Jones and directed by Edmund Coulthard, it hangs its narrative on Lennon's relationship with his long-absent father (an excellent Christopher Fairbank), who showed up again one day when Lennon was filming "A Hard Day's Night" and was in and out of his life for the next several years. (That Lennon was a deserted son who deserted his own son is an irony the filmmakers do not fail to point out.) These are the picture's best-imagined scenes, but there are not enough of them to make a story stick.

If this were your only guide to Lennon, you would be forgiven for not realizing that he was a musician at all; songs from his solo career play on the soundtrack, but the only music we see him make is a bit of the improvised folderol that made up his first collaboration with Yoko Ono (Naoko Mori). The other Beatles barely appear, with only Andrew Scott's sleepy Paul McCartney getting more than a couple of lines, but none of the actors are given enough space to build a solid character, either — even the formidable Yoko comes off as a bit of a simp. Minus any demonstration of his importance, and with Eccleston playing the pained, petulant John to the near exclusion of the talented, charming one, we are left just with a portrait of a rich and prickly young man, impersonated by a comparatively old one: Eccleston, who is 46, plays Lennon only from 23 to 30, when he moved with Ono to the United States, where he would spend the rest of his life despite Richard Nixon's best efforts to deport him.

The documentary "LENNONYC," written and directed by Michael Epstein, picks up right where "Naked Lennon" leaves off, as John and Yoko arrive in New York, just a couple of huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Juxtaposed with "Lennon Naked," it argues for the superiority of biography over biopic: Here is the person, singing his songs, speaking for himself and being spoken of, seen in his own clothes in his own house.

The film covers a lot of ground — politics, musicmaking, New York in the '70s, domestic breakdown and repair — from multiple angles, with contributions from friends and sidemen, activists and lawyers, and while the commentary is sympathetic, it is not circumspect. Ono, who cooperated with the project and provided unseen footage and tapes of studio chatter, is often depicted as her late husband's hagiographer-in-chief, yet the John she describes here is no simple saint but an emotional late bloomer on a long learning curve. That his life ended just as he was working out how to live it is the saddest part of the story; you don't even have to like his records to be moved by that.

In the end, the killer is not named, nor are his movements traced, nor his motivations examined. John is here and then he's not, as the lights of the ambulance turn to candles in the street.

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