‘Lennon Naked,’ PBS

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Christopher Eccleston as John Lennon in PBS’ “Lennon Naked”

‘Lennon Naked’ on PBS Masterpiece Contemporary

Written by Robert Jones
Directed by Edmund Coulthard
Starring Christopher Eccleston, Naoko Mori, Christopher Fairbank, Andrew Scott
Blast! Films Ltd production
PBS stations
Sunday, Nov. 21, 2010; 9 p.m. ET/PT
(See video clip below.)

It’s hard to believe that John Lennon has been dead for 30 years. Had he lived, he would be 70 years old now. I trust that he would have grown out of the angry, sneering, sardonic and petulant John Lennon portrayed in “Lennon Naked.”

Starring Christopher Eccleston (“Dr. Who”), this new production highlights Lennon’s life from 1967 to 1971. In these years, he left the Beatles, left his wife for Yoko Ono (Naoko Mori, “Torchwood”) left his son Julian, and left England for New York City.

One would think that this intense four-year period of John’s fame and fortune and musicalas well ascreative growth would turn into a fascinating biopic. Sorry, no such luck. And the music isn’t great either.

Instead, we see a slow, boring dramatization of a cruel, sarcastic, unfeeling guy whose personality may have been twisted by the scars of his parents’ separation. Lennon’s parents had asked 5-year old John to choose with whom to live. He initially chose his father. When his mother, Julia, walked away, he started crying and ran to her. Mother Julia, in turn, packed him off to live with her sister. Thus, Lennon lost both parents, leaving him unloved and unlovable.

At the start of “Naked Lennon,” his mother has been dead for almost 10 years and he hadn’t seen his father (well played by Christopher Fairbank, “Tess of the D’Urbervilles”) for 17 years. Lennon’s father returns in a tabloid-inspired reunion. He wheedles his way into his son’s extravagant life, where his presence causes John to face his abandonment demons.

Fans are familiar with John’s search for equanimity. First, the Fab Four went to India to study meditation with Maharishi Mahesh yogi, but left rather quickly. In a news conference, they said that there wasn’t much to him. (However, a cousin of mine, who was there at the time, told me he thought that the Beatles weren’t willing to put the necessary work into the process.)

Then John tries primal therapy. In one powerful sequence portraying the events that led to the writing of Lennon’s song, “Mother,” he ultimately re-experiences and confronts his crushing abandonment.

John pushes away all those closest to him: manager, Brian Epstein; wife Cynthia; son Julian; soul brother Paul. Except Yoko Ono. The scenes with John and Yoko show a few moments of happiness while they explore new music ideas.

Surely among John’s young days of heady fame, musical creativity, and adoration by masses, there must have been some fun, some light moments, at least, some well-earned pride. We see none of them.

Also lacking is the drama of the break-up of the Fab Four, the end of Lennon’s marriage to Cynthia (Claudie Blakley, “Return to Cranford”), and his abandonment of his own son, Julian. We watch the events occur, but they lack foundation, emotion and power.

Screenwriter Robert Jones (“The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency”) uses Lennon’s abandonment issues as the critical plot point, which he exploits incessantly. He also uses recurrent shots of symbolic blue skies and white balloons. Given that the screenplay was written in 18 days, one can see Jones’s temptation to shortcut the writing process.

Forty-six-year-old Christopher Eccleston is a skilled actor. But he is simply too old to play the 20-something Lennon convincingly. Eccleston’s face never changes from his severe expression, nor does he dig deeply into the soul of Lennon.

John Lennon’s life didn’t come easy, but “Lennon Naked” is a long and boring road.

PBS is also airing an American Masters special, LENNONYC, Monday, Nov. 22 at 9 p.m. ET.

©Emily S. Mendel 2010 All Rights Reserved.

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