Lennon’s early life explored in evocative, irresistible ‘Nowhere Boy’
rap your brain around this: had John Lennon lived, he would have been 70 years old last week. The world may have been cheated out of Lennon’s third act, whatever it might have been, but we can celebrate the early life of this complex, driven, caustic and vital man with the ambitious biographical drama Nowhere Boy. Although it zeroes in on the brief span of time between teenage John’s discovery of rock ‘n’ roll and the rise of his fledgling band on the local scene, this is in no way a Beatles musical. (Only a single charged, raucous chord of Beatles music is heard in the entire film—you’ll know it when you hear it.) The focus here is not on the birth of an icon, but on the struggle of a conflicted teenage boy to become himself; emotionally as well as musically, the film hits all the right notes.
Skillfully directed by Sam Taylor Wood, from a sensitive script by Matt Greenhalgh, the film is based on a memoir by Julia Baird, Lennon’s half-sister. Famously raised by his Aunt Mimi from age 5, separated, then reunited with his beloved mother, Julia, Lennon’s complicated family ties were a source of both pain and inspiration throughout his life. Illuminating these two most critical relationships in John’s young life, without sentimentality or bathos, is the major achievement of this engrossing and entertaining film.
In a working-class Liverpool neighborhood, teenage John (a wonderful performance by Aaron Johnson) lives with his prim, proper Aunt Mimi (the marvelous Kristin Scott Thomas) and fun-loving Uncle George (David Threllfall). A bright kid, always doodling, he’s always in trouble at school for girlie mags, smoking cigs in the bathroom, and overall cheekiness; the headmaster warns him he’s “going nowhere.” He’s never known his father, and hasn’t seen his mother, who mysteriously gave him up, in years when he spies Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) at a family funeral. A cousin finds out she lives just a few streets away, and John summons his nerve to visit her.
A high-spirited redhead, Julia is a revelation to John, everything her stoic sister Mimi is not. Where Mimi banishes all displays of emotion with a stern, “Don’t be silly,” Julia is out for a good time. In a boardwalk café, she punches up pop tunes on the jukebox. (“You know what it means, rock ‘n’ roll? Sex!” she tells John.) In the house she shares with a new husband and two new little daughters, with its piano, red-patterned wallpaper, and warm, messy state of chaos, she teaches John to play some banjo chords and takes him off to the cinema to see Elvis.
In real life, John was only 11 when he started hanging out at Julia’s household, but in telescoping events, the filmmakers focus on the pressure cooker of family tensions, anger and resentment over being abandoned, and surging sexuality for which John finds an outlet in the American R&B music he starts nicking from the record store—Screaming Jay Hawkins, Buddy Holly. Greenhalgh’s script deftly poses the simmering of John’s emotional life with his furious energy to recruit a band from his mates (anyone who owns an instrument is in)—named The Quarrymen, after their school— and grab hold of a life and a future that’s all his own.
Johnson never impersonates Lennon; in a performance bursting with sass, heart, and deadpan bravado, he finds his own emotional truth every moment he’s onscreen. When, at 17, John meets 15-year-old Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster), his instinctive alpha-dog sarcasm evaporates as the more musical younger boy mentors him in guitar chords and songwriting. An even younger George Harrison (Sam Bell) also pops up, and there’s plenty of music, mostly R&B covers (except for a killer re-creation of “In Spite Of All the Danger,” the first original song the three of them recorded together).
This glimpse into the fusion process that would soon explode into The Beatles is irresistible. But it’s John’s relationship to Mimi, the steadfast and only constant in his young life who gives him the strength to fly, that makes this such an evocative, if unorthodox love song of a movie.
★★★★ (out of four)
With Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Anne-Marie Duff. Written by Matt Greenhalgh. Directed by Sam Taylor Wood. A Weinstein Company release. Rated R. 98 minutes. Watch film trailer >>>