Sunday, October 17, 2010
Review: "Nowhere Boy"
"Nowhere Boy" distinguishes itself as much more than a drippy "before they were stars" biopic of John Lennon, and manages to wade into some actual soulful territory. How accurate a depiction it is of Lennon's teen years is impossible to say. But even if we can't assess its historical genuineness, the movie is faithful to its own truth.
It succeeds as a moving story of a boy, expressively played by Aaron Johnson, whose life would have been interesting enough to justify a movie about it even if he'd never gone on to be one of The Beatles.
Johnson, who affected an American accent so believable in this spring's "Kick-Ass" that many of us were shocked to discover he's British, nails the Liverpool speech patterns of Lennon and his peers. His features are a far sight too pretty to resemble the pinch-faced Lennon, but more importantly we believe he could be Lennon -- particularly later in the story when he acquires a swelled head bigger than the pompadour he copied off Elvis.
His Aunt Mimi is played by Kristin Scott Thomas, doing that rigid, emotionally closed-off British thing that few do as well as Scott Thomas. Early in the story she loses her husband George (David Threlfall), who encouraged John's playful side, leaving the disparate pair stuck together in the cramped confines of Mendips house.
John has lived with his aunt and uncle as long as he can remember, though there are some hazy recollections of trouble involving his parents. When his mother Julia (a marvelous Anne-Marie Duff) shows up at George's funeral, it's an excuse from them to reconnect.
John is shocked to learn his mother lives just a short walk away. At first, he's enthralled with the renewed relationship. His mother, red-haired and vibrant, is passionate about life and music. Soon he's ditching aunt Mimi to spend more and more time with his mum.
Eventually, dark secrets about Julia and his own past rise up to complicate things, and John finds himself estranged from both his aunt and mother. He funnels that anger, of course, into music.
Julia introduces John to rock 'n' roll and teaches him to play the banjo. The scene where she sings him "Maggie May," a ribald tune about a whore that is something of an unofficial anthem of Liverpool, is pure magic. At that moment, with John's eyes twinkling, we can see the boy's fate is sealed.
John launches a band called The Quarrymen that plays a few local gigs, and soon attracts the attention of 15-year-old Paul McCartney, a musical prodigy whose expertise on the guitar puts their three-chord progressions to shame. I'd have said Thomas Brodie Sangster was too baby-faced to play Paul, but if you look at photos from the era the resemblance is actually fairly spot-on.
Although it's not the central dynamic of the film -- John's relationship with his two mother figures is -- the interaction between John and Paul is interesting. Despite being younger and subservient to John's leadership of the band, Paul manages to subtly influence John about both his musical and personal direction. He even introduces a friend, George Harrison (Sam Bell), into the band.
"Nowhere Boy" is based on a memoir by Lennon's half-sister Julia Baird, adapted for the screen by Matt Greenhalgh. It was skillfully directed by Sam Taylor-Wood -- who is engaged to her star Johnson, despite being more than twice his age. (I'm not judging, just reporting that which is interesting.)
I should note that Johnson did his own singing for the film. He doesn't quite sound like Lennon, but he sounds good enough to have become Lennon. One scene, where The Quarrymen are recording "In Spite of All the Danger" at a two-bit studio, is a delightful aural feast.
Ultimately, "Nowhere Boy" is less about the artistry of John Lennon than the boy who had a yawning hole in his life that he desperately needed to fill. Music just happened to fit the bill.
3 stars out of four