Despite admirable aspects, it's a less-than-magical history tour.
The three-decade milestone of John Lennon’s death has produced a surge of remembrances, from the feature “Nowhere Boy” to the BBC movie “Lennon Naked,” which “Masterpiece Contemporary” is unveiling in the U.S. Beyond a fine performance by Christopher Eccleston that rises above mere impersonation, the 90-minute production proves rather inert dramatically, choosing as it does to illustrate episodes from Lennon’s Beatles years, 1964-71, without a coherent narrative. The audience meets Lennon at the height of his early fame and follows him through a whiny personal journey punctuated by serious daddy issues. Despite admirable aspects, it’s a less-than-magical history tour.
The opening sequence (deftly woven with actual video, and shot in grainy black and white before later shifting to color) captures Lennon with Beatles manager Brian Epstein (Rory Kinnear) as screaming girls chase him through the streets. He’s already a tortured artist, and especially angry about having to meet his father (Christopher Fairbank), largely an absentee in Lennon’s youth but who actually comes across as a likable rogue, a la Eliza Doolittle’s pop in “My Fair Lady.”
Years fly by to find Lennon unhappily married to Cynthia (Claudie Blakely), regretting a trip to India to seek spiritual guidance along with his bandmates (only Andrew Scott, a ringer for Paul McCartney, registers) and eventually being seduced by Yoko Ono (“Torchwood’s” Naoko Mori), with whom he enters into mind-expanding bliss and antiwar crusading, saying he was “a mess before I met you.”
Dribs and drabs of insight into Lennon’s inner rage and spiritual exploration emerge from Robert Jones’ script, but beyond a few illuminating snippets of dialogue — “Everybody loves me. That’s like saying nobody does.” — by focusing on such a narrow swath of his life, “Lennon Naked” never establishes an arc worthy of its name. At best, director Edmund Coulthard offers snapshots from the years the Beatles culturally defined, without fully connecting those images.
Conspicuously lacking, too, is much effort to help the uninitiated truly appreciate the Beatles’ musical brilliance. Instead of even a cursory look at what conjured the Lennon-McCartney songwriting magic, we get meetings with lawyers hashing out contractual matters (or marital ones), and press conferences where reporters pressed Lennon about his anti-establishment views and daring to proclaim himself “more popular than Jesus.” (Fortunately, PBS will also air the documentary “LennonNYC” on Nov. 22.)
Eccleston, who lacks much of a physical resemblance to Lennon, certainly nails the biographical portrait, but “Lennon Naked” spends a lot of time probing around its subject’s thin skin without exposing much that augments his legend. It’s a movie with music as its foundation that hits occasional high notes but, ultimately, can’t carry a tune.