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TV preview: 'LennoNYC' and 'Lennon Naked' 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.)

In a Manhattan of high crime, gritty streets and art-scene apogee, the couple could mingle with the antiwar movement (Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were early members of the welcome committee) and share their observations and pet causes on "The Dick Cavett Show." They also apparently became adroit connoisseurs of the city's 24-hour takeout options.

Lennon's radical politics naturally attracted the paranoid ire of Washington, which promptly opened a fat file on his activities (allegedly tapping his phones and following him around) and initiated deportation procedures that took four years to fight off in court. Lennon prevailed and got his green card - a saga that was much more compellingly revisited in the 2006 documentary "The U.S. vs. John Lennon." In "LennoNYC" the battle simply fails to materialize as a patriotic metaphor - or anything else but a clip job.

In addition to the immigration flap, Epstein and his interviewees - including studio musicians, New York scenesters and rock journalists, and such key players as Elton John, the seldom-seen assistant/companion May Pang, and even Ono herself - get bogged down in a recitation of the common album/despair/album/redemption timeline.

It's all here: those charity concerts at Madison Square Garden and elsewhere (Free John Sinclair!); Lennon's separation from Ono that precipitated his boozy and ill-fated sojourn to Los Angeles to record with Phil Spector; the return to domesticity and his househusband years spent baking bread and raising Sean - the "Beautiful Boy" of one of his father's last love songs. The film culminates in the MOR optimism of the "Double Fantasy" sessions and an armed wacko waiting outside the Dakota apartment building on that December night.

What "LennoNYC" is missing is a deeper inquiry into how Lennon loved the city and how it loved him back. What about the real New York details, such as how John and Yoko bought and built their love aerie in the Dakota, which became a modern landmark thanks to them, and where Ono still owns several apartments?

And where did they shop? Did they prefer cabs or town cars? Or the subway? Where did they see movies, theater, art? (Did they?) I ask only because it's called "LennoNYC" and because David Geffen and a host of others seem ready and willing to tell us.

If something about "LennoNYC" seems stilted to you too, consider the second line of the end credits: "With deepest gratitude and appreciation to Yoko Ono, without whom this film would not have been possible."

Well, there you go.

The time for Ono bashing, or cringing at her sometimes intriguing and provocative musical contributions, is long past; but the fact remains that the more you let Ono into a Lennon biography - the more permission or cooperation or archival material you seek from her - the more antiseptic and narrower the result.

Thus, "LennoNYC" carries the burden of being too careful. Only once does a wry statement appear to escape official scrutiny, when Andy Newmark, who played drums on "Double Fantasy," remembers that "When we finished the first song, [John said] 'Now we're going to do one of Yoko's songs.' " Knowing pause here; slight wink, as Newmark adds: "One of mother's songs."

Still, if all you need is love, then "LennoNYC" can of course hold your attention with yards and yards of fabulous footage and songs. (Even the drecky biopic "Lennon Naked" will at least give Beatleologists something to chew on and spit out.)

Instead, I'd urge Lennon fans to check out two other projects that came out this year: artist-director Sam Taylor-Wood's recently released theatrical movie, "Nowhere Boy," which tenderly looks at Lennon's rebellious youth in the late 1950s. It's a superbly acted character study that pulls off the neat trick of letting the audience forget, for a moment, that this ordinary young man would travel beyond the outer limits of pop sainthood.

There's also the riveting and well-reported book by journalist Peter Doggett called "You Never Give Me Your Money: The Beatles After the Breakup," which precisely yet humanely strips away some of the hero-worship, chronicling three decades (and counting) of lawsuits, tantrums and mediocre solo artistry.

That sort of stuff can be bad medicine for die-hard Beatles fans, but these are the sorts of unflinching treatments we need to see in future Lennonalia - if our culture ever gets over the loss.

LennoNYC (two hours) airs Monday at 9 p.m. on WETA and MPT.

Lennon Naked (90 minutes) airs Sunday at 8:58 p.m. on WETA and at 9 p.m. on MPT.

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