JFK’s Risky Lives; Paul Tears Up for Hendrix: Greg Evans

Addison’s disease, star-struck interns and near-apocalypse: John F. Kennedy’s old secrets don’t pack a lot of punch these days.

Despite the dearth of anything new to say (but an excuse to say it nonetheless, with this month’s 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination), PBS’s “JFK” is as close to essential viewing as TV’s latest round of Kennedy memorials is likely to get.

An installment of the intermittent “American Experience” series about U.S. presidents, “JFK” stuffs an impressive amount of life story in its four hours.

The two-part documentary, directed by Susan Bellows, is courteous and not fawning. Its report card on his presidency might be summed up as “incomplete” and the archival footage alone makes the show exceptional.

“JFK” (also available Nov. 19 on DVD) begins with a quick dip into the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the nuclear brinksmanship still as chilling as ever.

High stakes established, the film flashes back to the scion’s sickly youth (his lifelong and long-hidden Addison’s disease required debilitating steroid treatments and, during his presidency, injections of painkillers and amphetamines from the infamous Max “Dr. Feelgood” Jacobson).

Grudging Progress

Kennedy’s public history is thoughtfully covered: The sinking of PT 109, the unseating of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, the initially grudging progress on Civil Rights and the folly in Vietnam.

Despite the anniversary, the assassination itself gets short shrift. The events are passed over almost wordlessly, with the familiar funeral footage telling the story (and no mention whatsoever of conspiracy theories).

On the personal side, “JFK” probes the health issues, the sibling rivalries and, inevitably, the risky extramarital flings. (Why didn’t his political enemies reveal the dalliances? “Mutually assured destruction,” the documentary succinctly posits).

“American Experience,” though, could use a dash of Kennedy’s risk-taking.

If the format -- clips, sonorous narration, familiar talking heads -- can’t be entirely revamped, can’t we at least hear something other than the elegiac, Ken Burns-style music that’s become history’s soundtrack?

“JFK” airs Monday, Nov. 11 and Tuesday, Nov. 12 on PBS’s “American Experience” at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***1/2

Jimi Hendrix

Paul McCartney was in a modest West End club in 1967 when Jimi Hendrix played a fiery rendition of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” three days after the Beatles themselves unveiled the tune.

“I get very emotional just remembering it,” says a flattered McCartney in “Jimi Hendrix -- Hear My Train A Comin’.”

Presented as part of the Hendrix Estate’s year-long commemoration of what would have been the guitarist’s 70th birthday, “Train” debuts this week as both an installment of PBS’s “American Masters” series and in expanded DVD/Blu-Ray versions.

Generous with performance clips -- including previously unreleased footage from the 1968 Miami Pop Festival, two years before his death -- “Train” is a joy, musically.

Directed by Bob Smeaton (“Festival Express”) with the support of the estate -- a mixed blessing for rock historians, if not viewers -- the film is a tidy summing-up, with clips of classic performances from Monterrey to Woodstock and the Isle of Wight.

Miami Pop

Lesser known gigs like Miami Pop and grainier footage from Hendrix’s London club era make “Train” a must-ride for aficionados.

Smeaton makes good use of the estate’s access and archives. The long list of interviewees includes family members, girlfriends and bandmates, along with rock luminaries like McCartney and Steve Winwood).

As is typical with “American Masters,” though, “Train” (or at least the PBS version provided for review) is respectful to a fault, coyly declining to broach harsher truths and full humanity.

But when Hendrix plays, this revealing “Train” soars right along with him.

“Jimi Hendrix -- Hear My Train A Comin’” airs Tuesday [NOV 5] on PBS’s “American Masters” at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ****

What the Stars Mean:

***** Fantastic
**** Excellent
*** Good
** So-So
* Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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