Watching “Nowhere Boy”
The new John Lennon biopic “Nowhere Boy” focuses on what is arguably the least interesting part of his life: his pre-Beatles existence.
But even if we have to settle for watching John’s first band play a gig at a fair, as opposed to seeing the Beatles appear on the Ed Sullivan Show or record “Abbey Road,” “Nowhere Boy” is still a decent movie, well-intentioned and sometimes insightful, if a little unremarkable.
The film plunges us into the teenage Lennon’s working-class environment. A troublemaker who has been raised by his aunt and uncle, John’s world is rocked when his uncle dies suddenly of a heart attack, and he glimpses a red-haired woman at the funeral. This woman, he learns, is the mother he hasn’t seen since he was a toddler, and when he discovers that she lives nearby, he begins visiting her secretly, knowing that his stern aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) would disapprove of his relationship with her flirtatious and unstable younger sister Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). Naturally, his aunt finds out what he’s up to, and confronts him at Julia’s house. But John initially rebels and moves in with his mother, who teaches him to play the banjo.
“Nowhere Boy” depicts John (Aaron Johnson, of “Kick Ass”) as a bright, aimless young man torn between two women: the emotionally unbalanced mother who showers him with affection, attention and praise, and the reserved and proper aunt who after his uncle dies tells him, “It’s just the two of us now, so let’s get on with it, shall we?” Kristin Scott Thomas is typically sensational, and Anne-Marie Duff, an actress previously unknown to me, is also quite good; they manage to make their difficult characters sympathetic and nuanced, yet far from blameless.
The movie’s domestic drama is well-acted and well-filmed, but I never found it as interesting or exciting as the music scenes. We see John’s early gigs with his first band, the Quarrymen, and his fateful introduction to the young Paul McCartney after one of the Quarrymen’s shows. We see Paul introducing John to George Harrison, and the band bringing its raw R&B sound — the young Lennon revered Elvis and Buddy Holly — to throngs of adoring young girls. Paul, in particular, is an interesting character, and I wanted to see more of him; in the film, the John-Paul dynamic is established during their first meeting, when John offers Paul a beer and Paul asks if there’s any tea. (A more heartfelt and affecting later scene, where John punches Paul in the face and sends him sprawling into the road, then helps him up and hugs him, illustrates the deepening and increasingly complex relationship between the two.) Paul is an old soul, a calming presence, and perhaps the character who is easiest to relate to; when John insults his mother and sends her scurrying out of the room, Paul looks at him, slightly disgusted, and says, “Nice.”
Johnson depicts the teenage Lennon as an insecure jerk and angry young man who found meaning and redemption in music, which, according to reports, is a fairly accurate portrayal; “Nowhere Boy” occasionally has the feel of a British kitchen-sink drama — “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” maybe — but instead of being defeated by an uncaring system, the talented protagonist goes on to found the greatest rock band in the history of the world.
“Nowhere Boy” serves as a pretty good first chapter to the 1994 film “Backbeat,” which depicts the Beatles’ rise to fame in the clubs of Hamburg, Germany, and John’s close relationship with the band’s original drummer, Stu Sutcliffe. At the end of “Nowhere Boy,” (I’m assuming spoilers aren’t really needed here; we all know what happened), John tells Mimi that the band is heading to Hamburg for a few months, and she asks him to call when he gets there. The end credits assure us that John phoned Mimi every week for the rest of the life, and we see photos of John with his mother and aunt, with the Quarrymen and George and Paul. It’s all very moving, but leaves us with the feeling that the best of the story is yet to come.
“Nowhere Boy” is a respectable entry in the musician biopic subgenre. Here are some other good ones:
1. The Buddy Holly Story — I bought Buddy Holly’s greatest hits after watching this.
2. Coal Miner’s Daughter — I’m not a country fan, but this film gave me an appreciation for Loretta Lynn.
3. Sid and Nancy — Gritty, dark and uncompromising; pair this with the documentary “The Filth and Fury” for an understanding of the Sex Pistols.
4. What’s Love Got to Do With It — This film captures the story behind the music, and is also a wrenching story of spousal abuse; Angela Bassett shines as Tina Turner.
5. I’m Not There — In this unconventional biopic; six different actors (including Heath Ledger and Tilda Swinton) play Bob Dylan; the film has its flaws (I found the Richard Gere-frontiersman segment almost incomprehensible), but I wonder if this fractured, abstract approach might be best for capturing the power of a truly iconic band such as The Beatles.
Honorable mention: Backbeat — Ian Hart makes a very good John Lennon (Hart also played Lennon in the 1991 film “The Hours and Times,” which explores Lennon’s relationship with Beatles manager Brian Epstein, but I haven’t seen it.)
For my earlier thoughts on the Beatles, click here.
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