Towards the end of ‘Nowhere Boy’, we see John Lennon walking home from college, looking less a young Liverpudlian art student in the 60s and more a Tommy Hilfiger model, so impeccably and fashionably dressed is he. Was John Lennon ever this beautiful, this glamorous and photogenic? This image stays in the mind, because it represents the difficulties in portraying an icon – do you dress him up, make him stand out, visualize his charisma? Or do you focus on his mind, his motivations, his body of work? ‘Nowhere Boy’ is a film trapped in this dichotomy.
Nowhere Boy goes back to an even earlier era than ‘Backbeat (1994)’ did, showing us Lennon’s formative years in secondary school. He is the prototypical teenage delinquent, picking fights, stealing records and shagging girls to the eternal exasperation of his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) who raised him instead of his wayward mother (Anne-Marie Duffy). One petty shoplifting spree leads to his introduction to rock n’ roll, while the death of his uncle sets the stage for a reunion with Lennon’s biological mother, Julia, who gave him up while Lennon was still a small boy. Happily for Beatles fans – if not for Lennon himself – Julia is a bit of a floozy who happily dances to Shakin’ Stevens in the middle of a cafe, and is shown to be a major musical influence on her (eventually) mighty son. Scenes depictng Lennon’s reconciliation with her are arresting not just for the excellent acting but also due to the attractive design and attention to period detail that captures the austere and frugal look and feel of pre-swing Britain. There is a marvellous passage that shows him learning to play the banjo at her house – the sort of cinematic mechanic at which so many other movies fail but which here totally convinces.
Where ‘Nowhere Boy’ falls short is the overall lack of joy and discovery in Lennon’s growth as a musical talent. After his first encounter with rock n’ roll and learning that banjo, he simply decides to form a band, and just like that, he is brilliant, if a little raw. Perhaps that is how bands are formed – sure was like that for me – but the film does not dwell on Lennon’s journey as a musician of substance, and there is no rumination on the subject’s musical philosophy or indeed his motivation. Sure, it could be said that the Lennon being studied here was far too young to require such profound treatment on his music (and this might also have something to do with the lack of license for Beatles songs), but when you are dealing with one of the most important artists of the modern era, a little more consideration would not have gone amiss.
The movie is also seriously hobbled by the sheer melodrama of Lennon’s conflict with the two mother-figures. Director Sam-Taylor Wood has obviously decided that the sense of loss and abandonment Lennon felt by the absence of Julia in his life, and her subsequent return were the overriding influences on him as an artist. That may be so (Lennon himself seemed ambivalent), but too much attention and running time is given to it, resulting in the film feeling like one long domestic argument. Everything else, music especially, is relegated to second stage, and only the performances of Scott Thomas and Duffy manage to rescue the story from descending into soap-opera tedium. Speaking of the former, while her face clearly shows her advancing years, Scott Thomas’s beauty just refuses to admit defeat to time, and while her Mimi is that tight-faced, composed and controlled corset-botherer she’s played a dozen times before, she still looks absolutely brilliant.
Taylor is clearly more interested in Lennon the boy than the Beatles, and this explains the hurried and wildly unconvincing introductions of Paul and George. They materialize from nowhere and simply assume their positions in the group and thus history. Furthering this suspicion is the casting: Aaron Johnson’s turn as the Beatles icon is fine, but his model-like good looks are a serious and constant distraction from seeing his character as an ordinary teen. While this helps with Lennon’s iconoclastic appeal, clearly there’s difficulty in reconciling John the music god and John the Mendips lad, and this is a dilemma that Taylor does not address satisfactorily. In contrast, almost every other male character in the movie is so anonymous as to be wholly invisible. Only one man matters in ‘Nowhere Boy’, and it isn’t Stuart Sutcliffe. There’s a notable exception, however: if Johnson’s looks are a distraction, then the crazy diminutiveness of Thomas Sangster’s noggin threatens to destabilize the entire picture. While the rest of the ‘Love, Actually’ star’s body has grown with his age, his cranium has seemingly remained immune to the effects of human biology, and you won’t see a smaller head anywhere in the cinema this year.
One thing ‘Nowhere Boy’ gets right, tantalizingly briefly, is the relationship and personal dynamics between Lennon and McCartney. John, the rough-and-tumble troublemaker constantly engaged in a struggle to keep his band his, his music real and his demons at bay, versus the mannered, beautiful and sumptuously talented Paul. Their scenes are few and far-between (McCartney is introduced extremely late on) but they are more perceptive than most other Beatles biopics in rationalizing the (ultimately destructive) mixture of disdain, jealousy and respect Lennon always for McCartney. If the viewer gets anything out of this movie, it is this.