TV preview: 'LennoNYC' and 'Lennon Naked' on PBS

Nearly 30 years after John Lennon's death, PBS's American Masters series takes an intimate look at the time the rock legend, his wife Yoko Ono and their son, Sean, spent in New York City during the 1970s. The documentary special premiered Nov. 22 on PBS.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 21, 2010; 12:00 AM

It's been a John Lennon sort of year. He would have been 70 in October and has been dead for 30 years next month, and I'm beginning to wonder if it will be another few decades before our hagiographic tendencies will subside, allowing history (and filmmakers and documentarians) to tell the fuller and less sentimental Lennon story.

Not wishing to lose a seat on the magical mystery bus, PBS stations are airing two very different Lennonphilic projects this week: "Lennon Naked," on Sunday night, is a made-for-British-TV movie about his falling out with the Beatles and other personal crises, and it reeks so strongly of unintentional parody that it should make almost any Beatles fan wince with embarrassment. It's the perfect example of a bad script basing itself in reality (press clippings, collected lore) and yet still seeming so bizarrely wrong. Even the wigs deserve a laugh track.

On Monday night comes Michael Epstein's "LennoNYC," a personality-packed documentary that lures us in with the promise of a strong thesis - that Lennon's sense of self was inextricably linked to living in Manhattan for the last nine years of his life - only to revert to the same old recollections. Everything in "LennoNYC" is respectful and even guarded, as if he died last week. It's odd how the 30-year distance seems to provide no further honesty or analysis from those who knew him best.

"LennoNYC" devotes much meaningful energy to its subject, and yet, at two hours in length, only one story, as told by record producer Jack Douglas, seems to deliver on the title.

It's a simple vignette, one I'd not heard before: Lennon was showing off his new coat (a silver parka with fur trim, which can be seen in several photographs during his Central Park strolls in 1980), and he was amazed at the simple act of acquiring it. He just walked into a boutique, shopped around and tried some things on. By himself - without a word or an autograph hound or an assistant or Yoko Ono in sight.

He liked the coat. He took out his American Express card, paid for it and walked home. The anonymity and ease of the transaction sent him into the everyday consumer bliss that many of us take for granted.

"Freedom," Douglas says. "Finally he had freedom. That's why he loved [New York]."

Lennon and Ono arrived in New York in September 1971, exhausted by media glare and the legal morass of the Beatles' contested fortunes. They sought nothing short of celebrity asylum.

Crashed out at first in a shabby, two-room Greenwich Village apartment, which delighted them after so many bed-ins in four-star hotels, they immediately sensed a more simpatico energy that soon felt like the only home they'd ever known. (Lennon, most biographers concur, never returned to England.)

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