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Masterpiece’s Lennon Naked: Make Gloom for Daddy

In Recaps on November 22, 2010 at 12:30 pm

John and Yoko (Christopher Eccleston, Naoko Mori) of “Lennon Naked,” last night’s “Masterpiece” presentation. (Photographer unknown; courtesy PBS)

The cleverest moment in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home – you remember, the one where the Enterprise crew travels back in time to 1986 to save the whales – comes when Mr. Spock questions profanity’s proliferation in late 20th century society.

“That’s just the way people talk around here,” Admiral Kirk explains. “You’ll find it in all the literature of the period … the complete works of Jacqueline Susann, the novels of Harold Robbins.”

“Ah,” Spock replies. “The giants.”

I was reminded of this scene while watching Lennon Naked, last night’s Masterpiece dramatization of John Lennon’s life in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Once upon a time, when Masterpiece Theater – as the venerable PBS anthology was known until recently – tackled biographies of great artists, we were treated to lavish productions about figures of lasting significance (Dickens of London, The Tale of Beatrix Potter).

Now we get movies about dead rock stars.

Don’t get me wrong: I like the Beatles as much as the next iTunes shopper, but I’m not convinced we don’t listen to the lads from Liverpool today out of habit – we can’t remember a time when we didn’t.

Regardless, I wouldn’t have minded PBS giving John Lennon the Masterpiece treatment if the movie had offered insight into the subject’s life.

But Lennon Naked was a paint-by-numbers portrait: Here’s the scene where Lennon meets Yoko Ono, here’s the scene where they stage their infamous “bed in,” here’s the moment the Beatles break up.

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

The movie – a new BBC production that PBS is streaming through mid-December – was framed by scenes depicting Lennon’s relationship with his estranged father, who left him and his mother when he was a boy.

It is generally accepted Beatles orthodoxy that Freddie Lennon’s absence from his son’s life left John emotionally scarred.

But Lennon Naked never really addresses the central paradox of Lennon’s life: How could John walk away from his own son, Julian, as he did when he moved to New York with Ono in 1971?

Maybe questions like this can’t be answered in a 90-minute TV movie, but if director Edmund Coulthard wasn’t willing to try, what was the point?

This isn’t to say the movie was all bad: Christopher Eccleston’s performance as Lennon was impressive, at least in the wrenching climax, when a therapist forced John to relive the pivotal day his father left.

And I applaud PBS for bringing Masterpiece into the 21st century.

(Full disclosure: I worked in public television for several years.)

The show has preserved its commitment to quality British costume drama while also embracing contemporary gems like The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, a cheeky political satire that probably would have gone unnoticed by American audiences if Masterpiece hadn’t showcased it a few years ago.

But let’s face it: Americans don’t wont for great television drama these days, so if Masterpiece is going to dramatize one of pop culture’s giants, it had better be worthy of the show’s storied brand.

Lennon Naked wasn’t.

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