Sam Taylor-Woods’ John Lennon biopic is by no means the first film to examine the life of the great Liverpudlian legend. However, few adaptions have focused solely on his adolescent years, before he became the mop-top Beatle most of us know him best by, as “Nowhere Boy” does. That is the formation of “The Quarrymen” and their evolution into “The Beatles.” Fans wishing to see the true formation of these early songs and music however may well walk out of the theatre disappointed as the film is not a rockumentary (or whatever one might want to call it) but rather has classic British family drama written all over it. And as a British-Canadian co-production financed largely by independents, it does follow certain predictable threads.
Based on the biography “Imagine This – Growing up with my Brother John Lennon” as written by his half-sister Julia Baird, the film delves into the young Lennon’s relationship with his uptight foster aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott -Thomas) and his carefree mother Julia Lennon (Anne-Marie Duff). Lennon himself as played by relative newcomer Aaron Johnson is a slacker who, following his uncle’s death, would rather steal LPs and share porn magazines than sit at school. Drawn in by the allure of his mother’s rock and roll lifestyle he begins to to learn first the banjo and then the guitar. Equipped with Elvis hair and Buddy Holiday glasses, what begins as a school band soon develops into a serious career-choice as he eventually meets Paul McCartney – played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, that annoying moppet from “Love Actually,” much better here – and George Harrison, much to the displeasure of Mimi. Taylor-Wood makes the decision here to focus on the family-tragedy rather than on the creation of music genius, or at least to balance the plots equally. This will doubtlessly irritate Lennon and Beatles fans who want to hear the music but for long stretches of the film this works quite well.
Aaron Johnson does an excellent job in the principal role, correctly balancing wonder, cockiness, anger and vulnerability, often in the same scenes. Together the duo of Johnson and Brodie-Sangster anchor the film for the audience and, despite the fact that they look nothing like Lennon and McCartney, should be the main reason for seeing the film. It’s not that the family drama isn’t interesting or significant when considering Lennon’s background but it means that the end-product runs along very predictable lines. And as such, the fact that this is the story of John Lennon isn’t even that important, it has been told so many times before with different characters. “Billy Eliot” for example pulled off the hardship of the working-class much more effectively. And even though the performances are all top-notch, overall the film leaves a lingering feeling that we’ve seen all this before.
Naturally, the film’s musical landscape is dominated by classics of the era, from Elvis via Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Fats Domino all the way to Lennon’s own material, many of the reinterpreted by “The Nowhere Boys,” in other words the cast of the film. It is a well known fact that filmmakers are very rarely authorised to use Beatles songs. However negotiations with Yoko Ono made it possible here. The result is a double-disc release of 33 songs. It must be said that while the reinterpretations are good, in no way will they rival the originals. Sadly, the original score composed by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp (that’d be the Goldfrapp duo to you and me) is completely neglected on the album. As heard in the film, the score is a solid effort, nothing outstanding for sure but should really merit a release. Those looking for a decent collection of songs might find satisfaction with this release but really the originals will make for a much better listen.
It’s not that “Nowhere Boy” is a bad film, but neither is it daring in its portrayal of Lennon and society at the time. Drama fans might dismiss it as formulaic fare while music fans will not be truly satisfied either. For those somewhere in between, it is definitely worth a watch.
“Nowhere Boy” was released in 2010 in many countries to coincide with John Lennon’s 70th birthday. What was your opinion of the film and the music? Please do leave a comment ad tell me about it! Also please help spread the word about my reviews by sharing them on Facebook and Twitter. Thank you all. Have a merry pre-Christmas time!