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Television Reviews

Everywhere man

Two new programs offer vastly different takes of John Lennon

By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / November 19, 2010

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Ah, the gift and the tyranny of round numbers. The John Lennon industry has revved up a bit this season, when Lennon would have been 70 had he not been shot to death 30 years ago at the age of 40. Among the 2010 additions to the existing mounds of Lennoniana, PBS is about to air a pair of movies — one extraordinary documentary and one extraordinarily glum, unnecessary, and irritating biopic.

First, the gem. The “American Masters’’ series can be uneven, with superficial portraits that feel more Biography Channel than PBS; but “LENNONYC,’’ Monday at 9 on Channel 2, is a beautifully focused and detailed piece of work that aims to chronicle Lennon from 1971-80, during his years in New York City. As Yoko Ono puts it in one of her many interviews in the movie, “John would often say, ‘I should have been born in New York City.’ He loved New York.’’

Lennon and Ono moved to the city, initially to Greenwich Village, to escape England’s more aggressive fans and hostile press, with Lennon noting that the Ono-hating British media would actually call his wife “ugly.’’ In New York, Lennon says, “I’m just known enough to keep my ego floating, but unknown enough to get around, which is nice.’’ Sadly, of course, it was Lennon’s ability to move with relative freedom that may ultimately have contributed to the circumstances of his murder outside the Dakota a few years later.

Lennon and Ono fell into New York’s avant garde culture, a gallery and performance-art world with denizens such as Andy Warhol and Allen Ginsberg that was more familiar to Ono. Meanwhile, they found outlets for their antiwar rage by bonding with political activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. The pair created a hybrid kind of activism, blending their fury with a touch of theater as well as music, promoting peace as if it were a product. John continued to pursue his raw, post-Beatles musical expression, mostly with the members of Elephant’s Memory, many of whom are interviewed at length in “LENNONYC.’’

Lest the exile of Lennon’s New York years seem too romanticized, “LENNONYC’’ spends plenty of time exploring Lennon and Ono’s battle against the persistent deportation efforts by the FBI, with FBI agents trailing them and their friends and bandmates in an effort to intimidate. (“Time wounds all heels,’’ Lennon said about his bitterness toward the FBI, once the deportation issue was resolved.) The documentary looks back at the negative responses to albums such as “Sometime in New York City’’ in 1972, and how that hurt Lennon.

And, of course, there is a chunk of material devoted to the couple’s breakup and Lennon’s “lost weekend’’ in Los Angeles with May Pang, who’d been given a nod of approval by Ono. Ono and Elephant’s Memory members recall an election night party leading up to the LA period, when, with Ono in the next room, Lennon noisily had sex with another woman. The next morning, he was sick and remorseful — which is evident in photographer Bob Gruen’s photos from that day.

Does “LENNONYC’’ skip over important events and relationships in Lennon’s life in the 1970s? Is it too much Ono’s version? I can’t answer those questions. I can say, though, that the movie is filled with fantastic audio outtakes, including a bit in which toddler-aged son Sean is heard singing his favorite Beatles song, “With a Little Help From My Friends,’’ the title of which his father can barely remember. We get quick glimpses of Lennon in LA with Keith Moon, Harry Nilsson, and Ringo Starr, and all of the many snippets of footage of Lennon in the studio are compelling. Director Michael Epstein makes a bold visual choice that pays off, by illustrating some of the audio-only studio outtakes with inspired graphic flourishes.

“Lennon Naked,’’ Sunday at 9 on Channel 2, is as vague and pretentious as “LENNONYC’’ is dimensional. The movie, inexplicably airing as an installment of “Masterpiece Contemporary,’’ gives us Lennon across the 1960s, a man with absolutely none of the humor or emotional vulnerability of the real Lennon. This Buzzkill Lennon, played by Christopher Eccleston, is so angry at everyone in his life, and so egotistical that his self-comparison to Jesus Christ has absolutely no cultural meaning outside of his own narcissism. He is so relentlessly bitter in “Lennon Naked’’ that, ultimately, his bitterness has no emotional weight.

The script, by Robert Jones, is remarkably spotty. The story leaps frantically from big scene to big scene, with nothing tying them all together, no coverage of the events that occurred in between. We get a cursory treatment of John’s relationship with Cynthia, a brief bit about Brian Epstein’s death, a nod to the Beatles’ trip to India, a few scenes of John pouting at Apple meetings, and so on, with John muttering condescendingly throughout. While Lennon biographies have tended to focus on Lennon’s maternal issues regarding his mother and his Aunt Julia, this one takes an interesting turn to look at Lennon’s struggle with his absentee father. But again, the movie, directed by Edmund Coulthard, fails to go deeper than a few scenes of Lennon spewing at his dad, Freddie (nicely played by Christopher Fairbank).

Eccleston’s performance is monotonous, both in attitude and in vocal tone. He clearly studied Lennon, but he seems locked into only one of Lennon’s faces. His Lennon isn’t stripped down so much as flattened out.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

MASTERPIECE CONTEMPORARY: LENNON NAKED

Starring: Christopher Eccleston, Christopher Fairbank, Naoko Mori

On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Sunday, 9-10:30 p.m.

AMERICAN MASTERS: LENNONYC

On: PBS, Channel 2

Time: Monday, 9-11 p.m.