There’s a scene in Nowhere Boy, possibly the pivotal scene, where a three-way argument takes place between John Lennon, his mum and his aunt. This is reminiscent of a ten-minute film made in 1996, Travesty of a Mockery, in which a couple have a heated argument across two separate scenes. Both films are the work of Sam Taylor-Wood.
I approached Nowhere Boy expecting to be disappointed; while STW’s films look impressive in a gallery or museum space, how do you then translate that to popular cinema – especially when it’s the story of someone so well known? For an artist, making a mainstream film is always going to be a risk. A feature-length ‘art film’ is unlikely to wow film critics, but an artist who deviates from their established style may be accused of ‘selling out’. Nowhere Boy manages to escape both pitfalls, thanks in large part to the script, which was perfect for Taylor-Wood. Her (previous) films often address suppressed emotions, or the release of pent-up tensions in relationships between people, mostly explained purely through images. This, along with her use of beautiful ‘old masterly’ colours and compositions, sat well next to the underlying sadness of the character and the story.
The film is based on the early life of John Lennon, here played by 19-year-old Aaron Johnson. It’s obviously tempting to draw comparisons with Ian Hart (who’s played Lennon brilliantly, twice, in Backbeat and The Hours and Times) but, rather than try compete, Johnson comes up with his own interpretarion. He plays Lennon as cocky, irreverent and angsty but also pretty desperate.
When John Lennon is just four years old, his (separating) parents ask him to choose which of them he wants to live with. As this ridiculous notion spirals out of control, he ends up being taken in, and raised by his aunt Mimi. The film revolves around what happens when, as a teenager, Lennon reconnects with his mother Julia. It’s a reversal of the usual ‘hate your strict mum, love your groovy auntie’ paradigm. Aunt Mimi is a formidable, stiff-upper-lip type, while flirty Julia spins records, teaches John to play the banjo and encourages him to skive off school. Things come to a head when John wants to live with Julia permanently and everything blows up between the three of them.
The most laudable thing about this film is that it doesn’t try to be ‘about the Beatles’ or milk any of that overly explored story. There are a few romantic touches, such as the camera lingering on Strawberry Fields, or the moment when John Lennon first meets Paul McCartney and, overcoming his competitive rivalry, lets the be-quiffed teenage Macca join the proto-band The Quarrymen, knowing he’s for something to offer. There’s also a scene in which the two ‘boys’ discuss songwriting, or what they call “putting words with music”. It should be cheesy, but somehow it isn’t, mainly because Johnson doesn’t fall into the trap of portraying the Lennon character as a stereotypically moody, introverted, poetry-reading/writing loner. So, when he says to Paul that he “writes stuff”‘ it’s the first hint of his profound creativity beyond playing rock’n’roll covers.
There are also some wry, hindsight comedy moments such as when Lennon’s reachers pronounce him a failure. Likewise just before he leaves for Hamburg, John drops in to see Mimi who asks him the name of his ‘new’ band, but before he gets chance to reply, she casually declares, “They all sound the same to me”. But, of course we all know the answer… and the rest is history.
GEMMA DE CRUZ