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I'm no fan of the Beatles. I think they are famous for inventing the boy band, rather then making great music. But other people would disagree. And it's those other people who would probably not enjoy this film as this is more about the early life of a teenage John Lennon and hardly references the Beatles or their songs, very much a comedy drama over a Beatles biopic. The events chronicled here are all longstanding early Beatles legends, though female director Sam Taylor-Wood manages to stage even the most portentous moments about the genesis of the band without making you feel a celestial choir is in order. It set out as a film that opens doors in understanding Lennon and the strange person he clearly became, not a film about the music.A young John Lennon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) is up to no good at school with his mates. He lives with Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) after his mom abounded him when he was just five, as yet for unknown reasons. When his Uncle George (David Threlfall) drops dead, turbulent teenage John turns to rock n roll to express his anger with the world, forming a skiffle band with his mates. When a geeky and confident Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) joins the group The Quarrymen are born. But John can't settle and needs to know why his mom dumped him and seeks her out, Julia Lennon (Anne-Marie Duff) turning out to be a real good time girl and living just a mile away. She is overly tactile towards her son when the two finally meet and John spending most of his time there as they catch up, preferring mum to the cold and straight laced Mimi. The question now is who can control him better and which mom will emotionally get in the way of his dream to be the next Elvis.It's not bad, earning 3 BAFTA nominations in 2011. It avoids any copyright issues by not mentioning the Beatles and only a real photo of a young Lennon and family on the mantelpiece genuine evidence of. It doesn't want to be about the music but explore the emotions and history of where the music came from through John's relationships with his two moms, overtly sexual at times. The film tries to care more about the characters and their relationships than it does the factual or historical context.Acting is strong and an eclectic mix, Scott Thomas popping up in all manner of films over her career. Sam Taylor Wood presents Aaron Taylor-Johnson's Lennon as quite an arrogant roughen, and that has been questioned, a grammar school boy in real life. The Beatles were lower middle-class lads if the truth be told. The film is based on a biography written by Lennon's half-sister Julia Baird and so some artistic license to turn spotty schoolboy musician into the rock n rebels here.It flows quite well and maybe dwells on teenage cliche rather too much for this type of British film.
Although I was born and raised near Liverpool and (inevitably) own the Sergeant Pepper album, I've never been a massive fan of the Beatles. Perhaps that's why Nowhere Boy, the story of John Lennon's early years, passed me by when it was at the cinema. In fairness, though, it only received a relatively limited release and I suspect that it passed a lot of other people by too; which is a shame because it's really rather good.
This is one of those films that was co-financed by the National Lottery and Film4 and it shows. I don't mean that in a derogatory sense; rather in a very positive way. It's exactly the sort of film which the British film industry (what's left of it) does so well and which would never get made by the Studio system: a low-key, low-budget story which concentrates on characters, rather than explosions and action. As a character study, it's hard to fault.
There are three key characters at the heart of Nowhere Boy. Lennon himself, his strict Auntie Mimi who brings him up when his mother abandons him, and his natural mother, who comes back at a crucial point in Lennon's life and broadens his horizons. What's important about all these characters is that they have genuine character arcs and develop throughout the film. Lennon starts out as little more than your average teenage rebel, drifting through life until music gives him a real focus for his undoubted intelligence and talent. Mimi starts out as a cold fish (reacting to the sudden death of her husband by doing the washing up) but slowly thaws and learns to display some of her emotions, whilst also exploring the reasons behind her harsh exterior and revealing a more vulnerable side. Finally, Julia (Lennon's real mother) initially appears to be a free-spirit, untouched by the worries and concerns of life, before again showing a darker, more vulnerable aspect of her character.
These character arcs are important, because they make the characters feel like the living, breathing people that they were, rather than mere players in a made-up tale. Their backstories are explored, their attitudes, ideas and feelings and general outlook on life firmly defined. Of course you might reasonably expect this, given that they are based on real people, but all too many biopics forget that characters need to be human as well as factually accurate.
It's the dynamic between the three very different characters that really gives Nowhere Boy its dramatic impact. The three are constantly in conflict, inflicting deep wounds with harsh words and actions. Yet even during the darker moments, their deep affection for each other is clear, even if they are not quite sure how to show it. This compelling dynamic makes for a very human drama that sweeps the viewer up in its intensity.
Of course, good characters need good actors to bring them to life, and Nowhere Boy doesn't disappoint. Kristin Scott Thomas is outstanding as Mimi. Her ice cold, hard exterior should make her impossible to like. Yet, Scott Thomas makes sure we also realise her affection and concern for Lennon, which make her ham-fisted attempts at showing r her true feelings to him all the more heart-breaking. It's impossible not to feel for Mimi and to sympathise with her as Lennon rants and raves against her.
Ann-Marie Duff's turn as Lennon's real mother, Julia, is similarly excellent. Julia would have been easy to misplay as a good-time girl who cares only for herself, but a carefully nuanced performance from Duff ensures this never happens. Like all the characters, she is torn and emotionally fragile, selfish and thoughtless at times, yet still deeply sympathetic. Her on-screen battles with Kristin Scott Thomas' Mimi are a genuine acting tour de force, a series of compelling scenes in an already compelling drama.
Despite giving away years in terms of acting experience, Aaron Taylor-Johnson holds his own against these two acting heavyweights as Lennon. It's an excellent portrayal of the young rocker and whilst it might occasionally slip into cliché (moody, rebellious teenager), this is only because this is the genuine story arc of the character in question. OK, so his Scouse accent might occasionally slip a little, but he absolutely nails Lennon's speech patterns and rhythms.
Elsewhere, characters are less well-developed and acting not quite as strong. Members of Lennon's early band, The Quarrymen, are reduced to the odd line here and there, and Thomas Brodie Sangster is particularly unconvincing as Paul McCartney. I know McCartney was very much a heartthrob in his day, but here he looks like a lost little schoolboy, more appropriate to a one-hit wonder, artificial Simon Cowell Boy Band than a member of one of the greatest groups ever.
As you might expect from a rock n roll biopic, the soundtrack forms an important part of the overall package. It's a pity that more wasn't made of some Beatles' songs (although I appreciate this would have been anachronistic) but good use is made of Elvis tracks and other early rock n roll songs to show how they influenced the young Lennon.
It's also a pity that more isn't made of Liverpool - a city I know well. There are parts of Liverpool which, architecturally speaking, are the same now as they were in the 60s but the film doesn't really show this off and it could almost have been located anywhere. This is a real pity because, just like the early rock n roll pioneers, Lennon's home city had a strong influence on his songs and it would have been interesting to see him more obviously connecting with locations that would go on to inspire songs like Strawberry Fields, Eleanor Rigby and Penny Lane. People may also argue that the film starts to get interesting just as it finishes (with Lennon heading off to Germany where the Beatles would effectively be born). For me, however, it was far more interesting to look at the early years of John Lennon, than his later years, about which more is already known.
Of course, as with any biopic, it's hard for the average viewer to know how accurate it is. Although I'm by no means an expert on the Beatles, there were certainly a couple of scenes where liberties were taken with the truth, and I'm sure that dyed in the wool Beatles fans will tear their hair out at the inaccuracies. For the most part, this won't matter to the general viewer since where liberties are taken, it is mostly with the timing or location of events, rather than the events themselves.
Nowhere Boy might be a low-key, low-budget look at the early life of a Rock n Roll legend, but it is an excellent piece of entertainment packed with a trio of superb performances.
Director: Sam Taylor Wood
Running time: approx. 98 minutes
(c) Copyright SWSt 2013
RELEASED: 2009, Cert. 15
RUNNING TIME: Approx. 98 mins
DIRECTOR: Sam Taylor-Johnson
PRODUCERS: Robert Bernstein, Kevin Loader & Douglas Rae
SCREENPLAY: Matt Greenhalgh
MUSIC: Alison Goldfrapp & Will Gregory
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as John Lennon
Kristin Scott Thomas as Aunt Mimi
Anne-Marie Duff as Julia Lennon
David Threlfall as Uncle George
Josh Bolt as Pete Shotton
Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Paul McCartney
Sam Bell as George Harrison
FILM ONLY REVIEW
Nowhere Boy is a film which highlights the events during a short period of time in John Lennon's life, concentrating on when he was aged 16 and 17.
The story begins with Lennon living at his Aunt Mimi's house in Menlove Avenue, Liverpool. We see John at this stage in his life with an already well-developed rebellious streak up and running, complete with Aunt Mimi voicing her disapproval at what she perceived to be her nephew's cavalier attitude to life. John was very close to his Uncle George, Mimi's husband. When George died suddenly, John was cut to the core, which simultaneously created more difficulties with he and Mimi relating to one another.
John discovers that his mother Julia was living nearby, and on paying her a surprise visit, the pair gradually re-establish a relationship, but it is fraught with difficulty, partly due to Julia's whimsical nature and partly due to Mimi disapproving of her sister, John's mother, reappearing in John's life.
Julia teaches John how to play banjo, and from there he expanded out into guitar, forming his first band with a few schoolmates, which he named The Quarrymen. After their first gig in a local park, John is introduced to Paul McCartney who then joins the band, and before long brings his friend George Harrison into the limelight. Gradually John and Paul - who had problems relating to one another at first - form a strong songwriting bond and friendship, especially when John's mother Julia is killed in a hit-and-run car accident, as Paul had recently lost his own mother and was able to empathise.
The rest really is history, and I'm sure most people over a certain age are fully aware of Lennon's story, and how he came to create the world's all-time most famous pop/rock band.
Firstly, let me say that I don't think my above preamble should be considered as a spoiler, because the John Lennon and subsequent Beatles story isn't fictional....yes, it really did happen! Also, most people - even those who are too young to remember The Beatles - surely must have more than a vague idea of various events in Lennon's early life and what they led up to.
I was a little hesitant at watching Nowhere Boy, being more than a tad suspicious as regards its intent, and how true to life the storyline would be. Also, John Lennon as a person isn't easy to characterise, so I was dubious as to whether Aaron Taylor-Johnson would be able to effectively deliver the goods.
First things first! Aaron Taylor-Johnson actually is rather good in the role of the teenage John Lennon, although in the film, bore little physical resemblance to the man himself. He adeptly managed to carry off John's demeanour, of a young man who was bright, positive, artistic, enthusiastic and energetic, yet rarely at peace with the demons inside of himself which would torment him through the route of recurring dreams from the day when his parents split up, his father moving to New Zealand and his Aunt Mimi stepping in to take control and care of John's upbringing. Aaron Taylor-Johnson managed to create a nice balance between Lennon's lighter and darker side, expressing each of those characteristics with flare, although for me he did come across as a bit too nice at times....it is my understanding that Lennon, although his bark was infinitely much worse than his bite, was capable of snarling - and did - more viciously than Aaron Taylor-Johnson managed to.
I was a little disappointed with Anne-Marie Duff's portrayal of Julia, Lennon's fun-loving, unstable mother. It isn't that she acted her role badly....more that I felt her resemblance to the real Julia is too far away to be truly convincing. However, all due praise to Anne-Marie Duff for carrying off what must have been at least a moderately difficult part to play, and she did act it well.
I am in two minds about Kristin Scott's role as the down-to-earth, no nonsense Aunt Mimi. There is no doubt that she acted the part with perfect brilliance, but I feel something went a bit wrong with the characterisation, in that judging from a couple of interviews I many years ago saw with the real Aunt Mimi (soon after Lennon's death), the part of Mimi in this film is put across as far too .... can I say this? .... far too posh! The Mimi I saw (the real one), came across to me as a solid, down to earth, hard-working woman with very stoical values...a lady who idolised the nephew she raised and cared for, wanting what in her eyes and using her own personal set of values, the best for him. Mimi in this film is far less earthy than she should be.
Although and obviously a significant character, the part of George Harrison in Nowhere Boy is minor, as this is a film which doesn't focus on The Beatles, because it ends before they start properly as a band, although he does creep into the picture.
For me, the most absurd piece of casting was that of Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Paul McCartney. Brodie-Sangster in the film bears no resemblance whatsoever to McCartney, both in looks, mode of speech and personality. Again, I feel this is more down to poor characterisation rather than any fault with the actor himself. The mismatch I found to be so absurd, that it is almost laughable.
However, despite the poor casting in this film, the acting is extremely good and it does, providing it is true, give an excellent insight into the driving force behind John Lennon as a very young man. Of course, certain aspects had to be fictionalised as nobody nowadays can possibly know the finer points of, for instance, the conversations Lennon and his friends/family had with one another, but the dialogue in the film is very well-written.
One thing which I find interesting is that on the imdb.com movie information website, Cynthia Powell (John Lennon's first wife) wrote the plot summary for this film. I am not for one minute criticising her précis, as she does simply say it how it is, but unless I have misunderstood John's age in Nowhere Boy, I don't think he had yet met her at the point when the film ends. However, Cynthia Powell makes no special claim to be an authority on John's life in the plot summary she wrote, and I feel that is a good thing.
For me, the most interesting - and haunting - part of Nowhere Boy is that it does give a very good insight into the darker side of Lennon's mind, and what probably more than helped to create an individual who although witty, bright, intelligent, sensitive and a gifted singer/songwriter/musician, carried a lot of anger around with him, which on occasions he didn't hesitate to express. The film focuses quite heavily on the instability of Lennon's very early life and how he was forced to make impossible choices at a far too young age, together with his whole world being turned upside down and the rug of security being almost cruelly torn from under his feet. John, probably understandably, grew up with a deep mistrust of people and their intentions, having been let down on more than one occasion by his whimsical, irresponsible mother....a mother who he idolised. The impression I get is that John was pushed from pillar to post, constantly being made to feel under pressure to be continually grateful to his Aunt Mimi, together with feeling isolated, rejected and neglected by his parents. As a child and at root, he was a pawn in a game which was being played by adults who in effect dumped their own problems onto him.... which is something I personally and very strongly can relate to. For that very reason, I found some parts of Nowhere Boy quite difficult to watch, yet at the same time very poignant and touching.
There is some rather good music in the film. For instance, we have offerings from Howling Wolf, Wanda Jackson, Elvis Presley, Bill Justis and Jerry Lee Lewis to name just a few. I was interested and slightly amused to note that the part of the film which shows The Quarrymen playing their first gig in the park, the music they produce is actually quite good....but, sadly is an inaccuracy, as I do happen to possess a very rare and much-treasured audio clip from that first gig - yes really! - and although I hold it in great esteem for obvious reasons, in reality The Quarrymen were truly terrible! However, we can forgive them that because they were very young, it was their first attempt at music-making, and with a member re-shuffle, some good management and good production (via Brian Epstein and George Martin), the band improved beyond anybody's wildest dreams. History speaks for itself!
In summary, I wouldn't go all out to say that Nowhere Boy is a written in stone piece of history regarding Lennon and his early life, but it is nonetheless a fascinating glimpse into perhaps what served to wire up his brain and make him who he was. I don't know how much or how little Nowhere Boy would appeal to religiously hardline Lennon fans who view everything about him almost as a holy sacrament, but it has to be said that despite the mis-casting, the acting all round is very good, and it certainly is an enjoyable, interesting film to watch. For die-hard Lennon fans, if you wish to watch Nowhere Boy, I'd recommend going into it with an open mind, perhaps even viewing it entirely as a work of fiction and for the purposes of enjoying, disconnecting from the John Lennon element - even though it is supposed to be about him - and seeing it simply as a story.
At the time of writing, Nowhere Boy can be purchased from Amazon as follows:-
New: from £3.10 to £18.99
Used: from £2.57 to £18.99
Collectible: only one copy currently available @ £8.00 (appears to be used)
Some items on Amazon are available for free delivery within the UK, but where this doesn't apply, a £1.26 charge should be added to the above figures.
Thanks for reading!
~~ Also published on Ciao under my CelticSoulSister user name ~~
Recently I've been watching a lot of documentaries or dramas about musicians and bands and Nowhere Boy is the most recent one I watched. I have to admit I have no interest in the solo careers of any of The Beatles and don't really like anything after Revolver except The White Album.
I find Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart Club to be one of the most over-rated albums of all time and I wasn't really sure if I'd like this film, I soon got into it though and to be honest it's not really about The Beatles.
Being such a succesful and well known band and the exposure everyone has to them, it's easy to forget their relatively working class roots and this film is about John Lennon's life as a child and how the sometimes troubled parts of it effected him, it also tracks the formation of their skiffle band The Quarrymen.
There's a fun element to these snotty little scouse troublemakers wagging school and getting up to mischief, the film is quite funny with John's sarcasm playing a big part in that but the film is also pretty sad and some viewers might find themselves reaching for a hanky towards the end of the film.
The film captivated me because the story line is pretty interesting and moves at a nice pace, from the very beginning there's a big moment and there's a constant flow of "shh.. it's an important bit" situations from then on.
It is pretty rude in some parts and is definitely not suitable for the younger crowd. I didn't know much about John Lennon's childhood and that my be the best way to enjoy this film. I thought the actors did a great job of representing younger versions of The Beatles everyone knows, Aaron Johnson (John) and Thomas Sangster (Paul) doing great jobs, likewise Anne Marie Duff does a fantastic job of portraying John's arty mother Julia.
Living a quiet existence in a respectable suburb of Liverpool with his adoptive parents aunt Mimi and uncle George, a teenage John Lennon's life is turned upside down when George dies, his estranged mother, the care-free Julia, re-enters his life and unsettling secrets regarding the future Beatle's childhood are dug up.
First of all, let me establish that I am not a fan of biopics. To me, they serve only the purpose of tediously relaying the details of someone's past, jettisoning any artistic merit in favour of the rigorous retelling of a life. As a result, they often isolate non-fans, providing interest solely to those interested in the subject matter in the first place. In short, biopics tend to do what a book can do much better.
Luckily, The Beatles remain the most popular band on the planet, so chances are the film will appeal to a fairly large number of people. Plus, thanks to Lennon's fascinatingly chaotic upbringing, the story of Nowhere Boy will likely interest his fans as much as the average cinemagoer.
The film is also successful through, wisely, attempting not to tread traditional biopic ground.
From the moment he meets her, there are incestuous undertones underlining John and mother Julia's relationship. Their initial time alone together makes for mildly disturbing viewing as mother and son act like two flirtatious teenagers, dancing together while gazing into each other's eyes, roaring animal noises at each other and, in one scene, cuddling up as young John daydreams about having intimate relations with a schoolgirl.
This isn't the only way the film differs from regular biopics. Choosing to focus on a significantly small portion of Lennon's life is an odd choice (especially when that section of his life is before he'd even had a glimpse of fame and success), but that Sam Taylor Wood's picture acts primarily as a drama about the relationships involving, and the power struggle over, a confused adolescent is the main reason that separates this film from other, more conventional biographical movies. Whether you're a Lennon fan or not doesn't necessarily matter - change the character's name from 'John Lennon' and the film would work just as well as an intriguing character study.
As Lennon, Aaron Johnson starts off slightly stiff (almost as though he has realised the size of the shoes he has to fill) but quickly settles into the role. The 19-year old is perhaps too thick-set and good-looking to be a physically accurate version of the wiry and plain Lennon, but he gets the inner-workings of the late musician almost spot-on.
Many have said that Ian Hart's Lennon in early-Beatles story Backbeat is the definitive version, but his portrayal of the man was too harsh, emanating the man's ferocity and bitterness but none of his positive elements. Johnson strikes a nice balance, ably capturing the boyish charm, the rebelliousness, the nastiness and, most importantly of all, the absurdist humour of Lennon. I suspect the reason that this depiction of Lennon is one of the best and most truthful yet is more down to Matt Greenhalgh's screenplay than Johnson's performance, but Johnson is a talent to watch nonetheless.
The supporting cast are fine, too. Thomas Sangster is a good Paul McCartney, and Anne-Marie Duff gets the sex appeal and unpredictable nature of the wild Julia just right. Best of all, though, is Kristen Scott Thomas as aunt Mimi. The uptight foster parent could have come across as one-dimensional but Scott Thomas brings compassion and warmth to the role.
The film does have its flaws - the main problem is that it looks no better than a TV production, the filmic aspect of the character study element offset slightly by Taylor Wood's lack of ambition visually. People expecting an extensive look at The Beatles in the early days may also be disappointed - that is relegated to a subplot here, with the band's name never even mentioned.
Still, these small faults do little detract from a film that succeeds so spectacularly in other areas. Crucially, unlike the vast majority of biopics that stick as religiously to the facts as Nowhere Boy, the film is never dull.
I don't feel like the original review I had was worthy of just how great this film is, so I decided to overhaul it.
I am a huge Beatles fan. It goes without saying. At the age of fifteen, I was watching "Backbeat", and borrowing old fuzzy VHS from my next door neighbour to watch the Beatles classic films "Help" and "A Hard Days Night" whilst I tried to learn "Yellow Submarine" on my guitar. I'm not here to review the Beatles, however, as much I'd love to.
There's been plenty of films in the past decade or so, all paying homage to the star that was John Lennon. One namely, being "Backbeat" where fellow Liverpudlian Ian Hart did a worthy rendition of Lennon, and The Hours and Times, Christopher Munch's film focusing on his trip to Barcelona with Brian Epstein in '63. Nobody has really managed to tell the true story of little Lennon's childhood though, the backstory that drove him to start The Beatles, until now.
Sam Taylor-Wood's feature debut Nowhere Boy, gives an account of John Lennon's life in his teens, and is superbly acted by 19 year old new kid on the block Aaron Johnson, who has grown hugely in popularity since his hit-movie Kick Ass.
Scripted by Matthew Greenhalgh, it covers five years in Lennon's life, from the death of his Uncle George, until his departure for Hamburg with the birth of the band at the age of 19.
The movie itself portrays the relationship between John, his mother, and Aunt Mimi, and the conspiracies and secrets behind who he truly was. John has lived with his Aunt Mimi since the age of four, but after the funeral of his Uncle is reunited with his mother Julia, who suddenly becomes quite the dominant figure in his life. The time following this is very conflicting for the poor boy, and results in his trying to get his independence and becoming a musician.
Aunt Mimi however, is a lower-class housewife, very proper and strict, and disapproves of the lifestyle John wishes to lead, instead trying to pull him backwards, but acheiving the opposite. His mother is completely the opposite of Mimi, a flambouyant, flirtacious woman who wants nothing more than to give John as much as he deserves - instead crushing him with her needs and desires.
So tells the heartbreaking story between two women fighting over a boy who just wants to grow up.
Funny at times and deeply moving in part, the film will manage to capture the hearts of Beatles fans, and even appeal to those less knowledgeable of who this cheeky lad from Liverpool truly was.
Make sure you manage to catch it on DVD and Bluray.
Being a non-Scouser living in Liverpool and a big Beatles fan, it was pretty obvious that I was going to go and see this look at Lennon's early years - the period where he first got interested in rock'n'roll to just before the Beatles go to Hamburg (a period the film 'Backbeat' looks at).
However, the film isn't really about the Beatles, (the name is not even mentioned), it's about Lennon's (played by Aaron Johnson) relationships with his family and his complicated childhood. Lennon lives with his Aunt Mimi (Kirsten Scott-Thomas) and rarely sees his mother (Ann-Marie Duff) but over the course of the film discovers more about his troubled childhood, get to see a rebellious Lennon at school, gets to know more about his mother and of course, meets Paul McCartney and George Harrison.
I thought the depiction of of Lennon's childhood was really good, the film seems to have taken a lot of the content from a recent biography of Lennon, which touched on some of the sexual feelings Lennon may have had for his mother (although this is shied away from in the film, but hinted at) and looked in-depth at the childhood battles over Lennon. The locations used looked fantastic and Liverpool still has enough of the original buildings for it to look authentic. Yes, there are some hints at future Beatles hits - we see the Cavern and Strawberry Field. Living quite near Woolton, I really enjoyed this, though Lennon's home wasn't actually filmed (it's a very busy road!).
I thought Johnson's performance was good, very cocky and got the goofy side of Lennon well but pehaps it didn't show enough of the dark side (after all Lennon admitted to being violent to women). I though the accent was a bit too scouse, in reality Lennon was meant to be fairly middle-class. All in all, though I think he did a good job, he's a good-looking guy (probably better looking than Lennon was) and you can definitely see the emerging rock star.
Thomas as Aunt Mimi, plays a typical repressed, stiff upper-lip character well but I thought she got over the hidden emotions well. Ann-Marie Duff gave a really good performance as his mother - likebable, attractive, fun (a deep contrast to Mimi) but someone with deep flaws - the film hints at a mental health problem.
Thomas Sangstar looks impossibly young as McCartney but you can see the connection between the pair - both with absent mothers - Paul's having died.
All in all, I enjoyed the film and the performances and actually shed a tear at the end (not hard for me though, I cry at Neighbours).
If you're not interested in Lennon, then this is a a decent British film with a unique look at troubled childhoods in post-war Britain. If you're a fan, then you're going to find this much more interesting.
Have you been to Liverpool recently? If you've ever hit the tourist trail there, you'd be hard put not to stumble across something to do with the Beatles. Hard to imagine, then, that by the end of the 70's there was scarcely anything in the city to mark the fact that the supergroup ever existed. Even when Cavern Walks and the Eleanor Rigby statue came along in the 80's, you would have had to do some serious research before tracking down any of the Fab Four's hangouts. Nowadays, it's the basis of an industry.
So if you're a Beatles fan, you'll need no telling that the title of this film is an allusion to their hit song "Nowhere Man", and is about the adolescent years of one John Winston Lennon, voted the eighth greatest Briton of all time by a 2002 BBC poll.
Aaron Johnson plays John Lennon, the troublesome carefree tearaway raised by his Aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott-Thomas) and her husband George. We see him merrily cycling from his Woolton home past Strawberry Field to Quarry Bank High School, where he clashed with the authorities and was a poor student, despite being convinced of his own genius. After step-father George dies, he notices an aunt Julia at the funeral service. Asking about her, his questions are dismissed by Mimi, but it is not long before the truth emerges that she is his mother, and that she lives a short walk away.
The film follows John as the relationship with his mother (played by Anne-Marie Duff) develops, and as the other relationships around him change in consequence. His mother introduces him to the rock and roll scene, in stark contrast to the reverence Mimi had paid to the classical music on the radio at home. When John is suspended from school, his mother gives him his first instrument, a banjo. From that point, it's on to the Quarrymen skiffle band and his meeting with Paul McCartney, played by Thomas Sangster, who learned to play the guitar left-handed in order to adapt to the role. Paul's mother had died of cancer the year before, but there were secrets about John's childhood, which he only vaguely remembered, which were about to come out into the open.
The Beatles are not even mentioned by name in this film, and nor do we hear any of the music. It's as if their achievements are assumed. What debutant director Sam Taylor Wood is interested in is that period of history immediately after the upheaval of war, which split up so any families and changed their lives irreversibly, and how those events affected the development of this famous musician. In doing so, he carefully and painstakingly recreates the clothes, music, vehicles and humour of the time, albeit I think the accents would have sounded more Lancashire than the modern day scouse depicted here. Menlove Avenue, where Lennon grew up, was hit heavily by bombing during the war, but unfortunately there was no sign of that in the film. In other scenes on location, Liverpool still had enough listed buildings and scenic backdrops to provide excellent visual authenticity to the tale. Nevertheless, I felt that although Lennon's upbringing was largely middle class, a little insight into war-ravaged Liverpool and its ensuing poverty would have been helpful, in particular in relation to the way Lennon's mother acted the way she did.
Overall, however, the story is well told, and the meetings between Paul and John are given special attention. Nevertheless, it's John's relationship with his mother which is central to this movie, and the dynamic between the two works very well. Special mention must be made of Kristen Scott-Thomas as the put-upon Mimi, and there's a scene towards the end, when John gets his first passport, of special poignancy which she carries off superbly. All the acting is up to scratch, in fact, and despite all the skeletons that have come a-jumping out of numerous cupboards, the overall tone is upbeat.
If you're a Beatles fan, you'll enjoy this anyway. If you're not, why would you watch? To be honest, John Lennon's childhood tale is not particularly special without us knowing anything about the adult he would grow into. The war changed many lives and, growing up in the 70's, I still remember stories of siblings separated at Evacuation who still hadn't found each other. Hard to believe in this era of the internet, joined-up government, and mind-boggling databases, but it's true. Take away the fact that this happened to someone famous, however, and we're left with some stuff that happened to some guy, in some particular city, at one particular moment in history. Perhaps nothing deeper is meant, and it's enough to make a film about John Lennon's early life... but perhaps also it would have been nice to have been led to a conclusion, or at least an opinion, about how the challenges he faced, or the difficulties he endured, might affect us in our own lives, or more particularly, the lives of any younger viewers who may be going through something similar.
I wouldn't want to put you off this film, as it doesn't do anything particularly wrong. TimeOut's critics, suffering from Liverpool Envy as they invariably do, have been particularly scathing in their own snotty way about the film's shortcomings, and callously unforgiving about a debut work. I can't agree that the film was quite as bad as they depicted, but I feel that it could have achieved more. Maybe the fact that John Lennon went on to be rich and famous will be sufficient to inspire any youngsters with a troubled background that life isn't necessarily hopeless. I hope so, but that will only work if that troubled youngster knows enough about what John Lennon went on to achieve, something the film does not spell out. As Beatles memorabilia, it adds to everything else out there, and as a piece of social history it works too, but the fact it doesn't touch deeper into the human soul ranks as an opportunity missed for me.
note: also appears on my film review website, TheFilmBlogger.com!
Many films have been made about the circumstances of John Lennon's demise, and documentaries have examined his life's work, but Nowhere Boy is the first film to focus on the musician's formative years, observing his difficult upbringing and the connections he made that would inform his later artistry as a member of The Beatles. Though not quite the probing biopic many will have expected, director Sam Taylor-Wood has crafted a loving ode to Lennon's life, controlling traffic with a wink and a nudge, while coaxing an exuberantly charismatic performance from 2010's sure-to-be breakout star, Aaron Johnson (who also stars in Kick-Ass this Spring).
The film depicts Lennon (Johnson) in his late teens, growing up in 1950s Liverpool, where he lives with his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) after his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), suffered a nervous breakdown. John rarely sees his mother, but doesn't let this bog him down: he is an aloof, carefree, brashly charming lad that spends most of his time goofing around with his friends, drinking, and trying to get his end away with the local girls. While not unexpected, this is in fact one of the film's chief stumbling blocks; Lennon is simply too rad, clinging to the top of a moving bus and fingering girls in secluded locations, giving the film an air of self-conscious coolness that takes away from its stature as a "serious" biopic. I do not know if Lennon really did ride on top of a bus as depicted, but I doubt it.
Primarily, Nowhere Boy is concerned with two types of narrative: the first is his personal life, where he jostles between living with his Aunt and his mother (who he discovers early on lives just around the corner), unaware of a truth that both of his relatives have been withholding. This is juxtaposed with the precursors to his professional life, such as his being introduced to a fifteen year-old Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) and, of course, George Harrison (Sam Bell), both with whom he would later form The Beatles.
The film's chief issue is that while the strands work well separately, they are treated as disparate throughout and never connected in a convincing way. Even when the dramatic beats reach quite a resonant apex at the film's climax, one must consider; how does this affect Lennon, the man, and why should we care? While the acting and direction are top-notch, often Taylor-Wood is keen to linger on inconsequential moments that depict Lennon as "cool" without really allowing us to get under his skin (although one scene of Lennon finishing a pint in the early hours of the morning is gorgeously shot). Furthermore, when we finally get to the dramatic meat of the matter, a portentous musical score booms in, just in case you weren't sure that it was meant to be emotional and gloomy. Still, when the film works, it works very well, and if one views the film on its own terms - not as a grandiose biopic with psychological complexity, but a breezy travelogue of how charming, and how audacious Lennon was as a youngster - it is surely satisfying, even if the baffling sexual tension between John and his mother is alarming.
Buoying the picture is Aaron Johnson's rather magnificent portrayal of the adolescent Lennon, bearing both a decent physical resemblance to the young man, and nailing the accent and mannerisms perfectly. Taking the overly cute, less serious depiction of Lennon as a given, Johnson makes it difficult to imagine many others in the role, and he nails the dramatic passages also, notably going on a swearing tirade at his Aunt after she sells his prized guitar. Kristin Scott Thomas herself shines as the cantankerous but caring Mimi, and Anne-Marie Duff is a delight as Lennon's emotionally conflicted, strangely attractive mother, while not forgetting the unique glimpse that Thomas Sangster gives us into the early life of a pint-sized Paul McCartney.
Although the film doesn't namedrop The Beatles even once, it playfully skirts around it while providing enough playful references to please Beatles diehards. Those looking for connections between his tempestuous upbringing and his unique artistic achievements will be left looking for more, but the film paints an adequate portrait of a charming and talented young man whose later demise was perhaps as senseless as one dismissing the film simply because it won't suture a false link between two very different aspects of his life.