On what would've been John Lennon's 70th birthday, comes the docudrama Nowhere Boy, which chronicles Lennon's early years in Liverpool and the women who were instrumental in raising him. Or more aptly put, who provided him with the trauma that fueled his creativity.
Nowhere Boy throws us right into the middle of John's (Aaron Johnson) walk to school, his witty sarcastic banter immediately establishes him as a force to be reckoned with. But the main focus is on John's relationship with his guardian/mother figure, Aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas) and his subsequent discovery of his biological mom Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who lives on the wild side, but just down the street.
If you know nothing of John's ordeal with his mom and aunt, this might be a revelation, but if you know anything about the Beatles, and especially John Lennon, then you know he was an open book about this stuff. Good news is that it's still just as compelling, if not more so, to see it transferred onto the big screen.
John's relationship with Mimi was severely strained under her strict guard. By contrast, his time with Julia exposed him to the world of rock and roll, Elvis Presley and Screaming Jay Hawkins. Nicely shot and with a realistic touch, director Taylor-Wood (recently engaged to main star Johnson) captures the same British docudrama feel of Let Him Have It or The Young Poisoner's Handbook in style and editing. There are flashbacks and dreamy sequences that establish what John saw on the day he was abandoned by his real parents.
But when John is faced with expulsion from school, or threats of work in the real world, his plea to start a rock band is portrayed as a stunning revelation gleaming with believability. We see the crummy beginnings of John's first band, The Quarrymen, and the band's evolution, adding Paul and George, but stopping short of Hamburg and infamy. The focus remains in Liverpool, revealing Paul and John squeaking out a version of Blue Moon or trying to outdo each other for attention. The bond and early jealousy born between Lennon and McCartney is thoughtfully depicted as John, all cocky and in charge, sees that Paul was the better musician, thus sparking their lifelong connection.
The dysfunction of the two rival "moms" turned Lennon's head upside down, but every performance is grounding. All the acting is superb. Johnson (the dweeby kid from Kick-Ass) does a solid job as Lennon, at first looking a little too buff to pull it off, but by the end he morphs into a picture perfect Lennon-esque figure, flawlessly capturing Lennon's essence and you believe his angst-ridden portrayal every step of the way. Kristin Scott Thomas is absolutely outstanding as the stern Mimi, callous and cold, yet caring. Her brilliant performance depicts every nuance of emotion. Duff is excellent as the impulsive Julia, capturing the disjointed free spirit of a troubled mother who feels genuine loss.
John's acerbic wit tends to turn mean and sour and Taylor-Wood is smart to show the charismatic, brilliant side of Lennon's personality as well as the ugly side. As everyone in the film quickly learns, he used his brilliance to inflict pain as well as amuse. Hidden Beatles lyrics are cleverly woven into the dialogue. The message is clear: the emotional roller coaster of Lennon's formative years unmistakably contributed to the complexity of his lyrics.
Nowhere Boy shows a tortured artist's soul formulating a dark and meaningful place and then expressing it through his art. Where Lennon's most reflective lyrics show up are on The White Album with the somber "Julia" and the cheeky "Maggie May" (the first song he ever learned on the banjo), but no song sums up the pain and suffering like his solo effort of "Mother," used in the closing credits. Sure Nowhere Boy might not have worked if it were about Joe Blow, but the fact remains that it isn't. Rather, it's about the troubled teenager who grew into a creative genius, and no matter how we look at it, this movie is a reminder of how much John Lennon is missed.
3 ½ stars
Starring Aaron Johnson, Kristen Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff
Directed By Sam Taylor-Wood