LENNONYC debuts tonight on PBS at 9 p.m. Eastern in most markets. Check local listings.

Most devout fans of The Beatles know at least the rough details of John Lennon’s solo years: the avant-garde publicity stunts, the fervent political activism, the immigration woes, the separation from Yoko Ono, the “lost weekend” in Los Angeles, the reuniting with Yoko, the long silence of the “househusband” years, the return to the recording studio to make what would become Double Fantasy, and the assassination. So there’s no real need for Michael Epstein’s documentary LENNONYC (airing tonight on PBS’ American Masters at 9 p.m. Eastern in most markets) especially since Lennon has been the subject of multiple documentaries, countless biographies, a few feature films, and DVDs that collect nearly every television appearance Lennon ever made. Even though Epstein filters the Lennon story through his and Ono’s love of New York City, that’s a very thin hook—more an excuse, really—and one that Epstein quickly abandons so that he can make yet another straightforward documentary about what Lennon was up to between 1971 and 1980.

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But there’s a reason why this story has been told dozens of times: It’s fascinating and moving. And Epstein tells it well. LENNONYC is too long, and it’s conventionally made—just archival footage and new interviews, mixed with some impressionistic effects—but because Epstein has the full cooperation of Ono, the documentary includes studio outtakes and home movies that haven’t been seen before, which Epstein uses to make the film more personal than most of the other Lennon docs.

That personal touch also makes LENNONYC more than just a routine tour through Lennon’s stations of the cross. Instead, Epstein focuses on Lennon’s conflicted feelings about being an icon. He and Ono found a welcoming home in New York, after fleeing the UK when the tabloids turned on Ono. The couple settled in Greenwich Village and became active members of the community, palling around with artists and firebrands. When Lennon wrote a song and led a rally in protest of the hefty prison sentence imposed on pot-dealer John Sinclair—and effectively got Sinclair released—the anti-war movement tabbed Lennon as a potential leader, to rally the youth to defeat Nixon in ’72. But then Lennon’s overtly political album Some Time In New York City flopped, a kind of cultural exhaustion with radicalism set in, and the Nixon administration began making noises about kicking Lennon out of the country. Suddenly, Lennon was looking less like a righteous hero, and more fallible.

He responded by drinking more and cheating on Ono, before she exiled him to Los Angeles. There, he doubled-down on the substance abuse, recorded a crazed homage to early rock ‘n’ roll with Phil Spector, and called New York every day to see if Ono had forgiven him yet. LENNONYC covers Lennon’s epic binges—including the legendary “Kotex on the head” incident—but it also notes that during his west coast stint, Lennon reconnected with Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney and seemed to enjoy being a decadent rock star for a while. (Though according to photographer Bob Gruen: “You don’t get drunk every night if you’re happy.”)

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If nothing else, LENNONYC reclaims Lennon as a working musician and—quite often—a likable, down-to-Earth guy. The documentary is at its most affecting when it covers Lennon in the studio working on Walls And Bridges and Double Fantasy/Milk And Honey, trying to be a regular singer-songwriter again and not a prophet. It’s fun to see Lennon back with Ono in New York, rolling around on the floor with baby Sean and appearing on local radio shows. (Lennon, giving a weather report: “Someone said the air was unacceptable, but I accept it.” ) All of this is precipitated by a moment when Lennon appears on-stage at Madison Square Garden with Elton John to sing “Whatever Gets You Thru The Night” and receives a 10-minute ovation, embraced by his adopted city. And of course, tragically, it culminates in Lennon getting shot and killed in the street, after which the streets fill with fans, singing his songs.

Epstein doesn’t try to force all these fleeting moments into some larger meaning, any more than he tries to make NYC the focal point of his film. If LENNONYC has a point to make, it’s only that Lennon felt at home in New York because he didn’t have to be special there; he could just blend in with the populace. Lennon eventually had his immigration status settled in a stirring ruling that noted how “his commitment to liberty” in his political songs didn’t represent a threat to America but rather an expression of the true American ideals. And having received the court’s blessing, Lennon proceeded to write and record a set of sweet songs about being a middle-aged family man just trying to muddle through. Because that’s America too.

Grade: B+

Stray Observations:

  • Tom Hayden has kind of a scrotum-nose.
  • I’d feel even better about the existence of this documentary if I didn’t feel like it was partly an extended commercial for the recent John Lennon box set.
  • Little Sean singing “With A Little Help From My Friends” to his dad = adorable.
  • Lennon, on his worry that his immigration situation would force him into a Charlie Chaplin-like situation, where he’d be exiled from America for decades and only invited back for some awards ceremony when he was old and gray: “They’d wheel me in at 60 and give me a plaque for ‘Yesterday.’ And Paul wrote it.”

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