Review: Nowhere Boy

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Behind “Nowhere Man” is the story that Nowhere Boy tells. The John Lennon-scribed track from which this 2009 UK release gets its name tells the story of a man without consequence or context. Accordingly, Nowhere Boy follows a teenaged Lennon (Aaron Johnson) through a tumultuous period that leaves his personal sense of self adrift, while his introduction to rock and roll music begins to anchor the person he will become. The film tentalizingly cuts viewers off right on the cusp of Lennon’s and The Beatles’ breakthrough.

Taylor Wood’s directorial debut is a well-crafted look at Lennon’s younger years, though it seems to go on much longer than its 98-minute runtime. The 1950s Britain the film portrays is working-class dingy in washed out and sometimes sepia tones, rock and jazz music injecting colour and rhythm throughout. Taylor Wood hits the highpoints of the young music man’s life—the gift of a harmonica, Lennon’s first soundmaker; his first exposure to Elvis—but allows the emotional details of his childhood to take centre stage. Lennon dealt with divided loyalties and feelings of abandonment having been left with an aunt and uncle to raise him after his father left and his mother started a family with…

Behind “Nowhere Man” is the story that Nowhere Boy tells. The John Lennon-scribed track from which this 2009 UK release gets its name tells the story of a man without consequence or context. Accordingly, Nowhere Boy follows a teenaged Lennon (Aaron Johnson) through a tumultuous period that leaves his personal sense of self adrift, while his introduction to rock and roll music begins to anchor the person he will become. The film tentalizingly cuts viewers off right on the cusp of Lennon's and The Beatles' breakthrough.

Taylor Wood’s directorial debut is a well-crafted look at Lennon’s younger years, though it seems to go on much longer than its 98-minute runtime. The 1950s Britain the film portrays is working-class dingy in washed out and sometimes sepia tones, rock and jazz music injecting colour and rhythm throughout. Taylor Wood hits the highpoints of the young music man’s life—the gift of a harmonica, Lennon’s first soundmaker; his first exposure to Elvis—but allows the emotional details of his childhood to take centre stage. Lennon dealt with divided loyalties and feelings of abandonment having been left with an aunt and uncle to raise him after his father left and his mother started a family with another man.

Aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas) and his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) are the opposing mother figures who are both pillars of support and sources of pain and frustration for the young man. Scott Thomas is perfectly prim and tight-lipped as the steadfast but slightly suffocating Mimi. Only in the climactic revelatory scene that discloses the nature of John’s intrafamilial adoption does Scott Thomas falter; the scene is overwrought and seems forced, though this could be a failing of the script. Duff is likewise strong in her role as an unstable women whose spirit you can see inspires John to imagine. When John decides to begin visiting his estranged mother, it is she who introduces him to his first string instrument, the banjo, and the girl-swooning properties of rock and roll.

Lennon’s mother is depicted as slightly broken, perhaps afflicted by a psychological condition that explains her fickle behaviour, including an overt touchy-feeliness that extends to John and his young friends. A periodic reversal in his mother's welcoming attitude becomes the final ingredient in the making of a rock legend; the pain is seen (perhaps a little too obviously) coursing through the teen as he belts out his first songs. The strongest scene, appropriately sentimental, comes when Mimi reaches a metaphorical hand out to her sister, telling her that she’s loved her without fail through thick and thin. The movie seems bound to end on a high note when John joins the reunited sisters for a catnap in the sun but the narrative lingers on, albeit necessarily, with the untimely death of Lennon's mother. Post-mortem, Taylor Wood depicts Lennon's downward spiral and recovery in too short a space to be effective.

British actor Johnson is well-cast as the Liverpool teen, with ample amounts of swagger and cocksurity to aptly inhabit the rebellious Lennon, though the Liverpool accent seems to come and go at times. Lennon is shown annoying teachers, teasing girls, and generally looking cool as he makes his way about town, past Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane. He and every other boy in town start sporting the rockabilly look in the wake of Elvis’ superstardom, taking the next logical step by starting a rock band.

The seeds of The Beatles are sown when young Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodey Sangster) and George Harrison (Sam Bell) join Lennon’s first band, The Quarryman. The pre-Beatles treatment in Nowhere Boy is well-executed without relying on the entertainment value of obvious foreshadowing. Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh opts to give viewers a few tongue and cheek moments instead, for example, only alluding to the amateur band’s historic name change without ever having it said aloud in the film. Beatles fans will enjoy the scene where Lennon leads the song “Inspite of All the Danger,” with Harrison and McCartney adding the harmonies that will one day set their song catalog apart. Johnson, Sangster, and Bell do their own vocals and appear on the movie soundtrack as The Nowhere Boys.

The story is adapted from the autobiography Imagine This: Growing Up With My Brother John Lennon by Lennon’s half-sister Julia Baird. Greenhalgh also wrote the superior biopic Control about Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis’ struggle with epilepsy and eventual suicide. The gap in complexity between the two films likely has more to do with the sadder and far shorter existence Curtis led.

Overall Score: 7.35 – Good(7s are good, but not great. These films often have a stereotypical plot or are great movies that have a few minor flaws. Fans of this movie’s genre might love it, but others will still enjoy seeing it in theaters)

Fans of music biopics won't be disappointed by Sam Taylor-Woods version of a teenage John Lennon. The melodrama in Nowhere Boy is forced a times, but otherwise remains as effortlessly cool as its subject.