My wife and I caught Nowhere Boy Saturday night. I went in knowing a considerable amount about John Lennon’s life. I went out knowing a whole lot more about how his emotional makeup. Or at least more about how some very talented filmmakers assume his makeup to have been.
For those who haven’t heard, the film concentrates on Lennon in his late teens (Aaron Johnson) and his strained relationships with the two mother figures in his life—his birth mother Julia and the aunt who actually raised him, Mimi (Anne-Marie Duff and Kristin Scott Thomas, respectively). This is a portrait of the future artist as a very angry young man. Since Julia proved unable to handle the responsibilities of parenthood, her sister Mimi raised John from the age of five. Although she lived within walking distance, Julia made no attempt to contact her son for many years.
She comes back into his life early in the film, and the sparks fly. While Mimi seems the very embodiment of the uptight, stiff-upper-lip Brit, Julia is wild, carefree, and apparently brimming with a zest for life. At least that’s the first impression. Married now with young children, she often seems to be flirting with her own son. She also turns him onto rock-and-roll.
Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh and director Sam Taylor-Wood treat John’s growing musical ambitions, appropriately, as a subplot. They’re interested in a teenage boy’s relationship with his aunt and mother; the fact that the boy will become rich and famous in a few years is beside the point.
Taylor-Wood wisely keeps Beatles references at a minimum. The opening few seconds echo the start of A Hard Day’s Night. The Liverpool folk song Maggie May—heard briefly on the Let It Be album—turns up a couple of times. In one scene we see John and Paul writing a song together, but it’s “Love Me Do” (the only early composition of theirs that they recorded and released). Early rock by performers like Screaming Jay Hawkins and Wanda Jackson dominate the soundtrack.
This is, to my knowledge, the third dramatic film about the Beatles and John Lennon. The first, a horrible TV movie from 1985 called John and Yoko: A Love Story, deserves to be lost. As the name implied, it was about his second marriage. The second film, the very good Backbeat, concentrates on the early Beatles’ days in Hamburg, and Lennon’s friendship with Stu Sutcliffe. Now the excellent Nowhere Boy studies his relationship with his two “mums.” Seems like each one is better than the last.
Now someone has to make a truly great film about the relationship without which none of us would have heard of John Lennon: his collaboration with Paul McCartney.