Review: Nowhere Boy (2009)

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Nowhere Boy (2009)

Directed by: Sam Taylor Wood | 100 minutes | drama, music, biography | Actors: Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff, Thomas Sangster, David Morrissey, David Threlfall, Ophelia Lovibond, Sam Bell, Jack McElhone, Ellie Jeffreys, Calum O’Toole, Simon Lowe, Les Loveday, Christian Bird, Josh Bolt, James Johnson, Daniel Ross, Daniel Solazzo

Liverpool will be dominated by John Lennon in 2010. On October 9, the seventieth birthday of the former Beatle is celebrated and exactly two months later, on December 9, his thirtieth anniversary is commemorated. To commemorate the musical icon, a two-month festival of music, art, film and poetry will take place. A prominent place at the festival is the biographical film ‘Nowhere Boy’ (2009) by debut director Sam Taylor-Wood, about Lennon’s teenage years. The film is based on the memoir of Julia Baird, the half sister of Lennon, released under the title ‘Imagine This: Growing Up With My Brother John Lennon’. The script was written by Matt Greenhaigh, who was also responsible for ‘Control’ (2007), the Anton Corbijn-directed film about Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. Although you would expect music to be the main focus of this biopic, the main focus is on Lennon’s relationship with the two women most important in his life at the time: his mother Julia, from whom he is estranged, and his aunt Mimi, with whom he has lived since he was five.

The film is set in Liverpool in the mid-1950s. John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) is portrayed in ‘Nowhere Boy’ as a real rebel, a boy who rebels against everything and everyone. And especially against his Victorian strict aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas). He skips school, steals LPs, climbs the roofs of double-decker buses, smokes and drinks like a heretic, picks up girls and is full of tough language. Of course, the Elvis crest is not missing. But he has a small heart. When his favorite uncle George, the man who gave him his first musical instrument, suddenly passes away, John finds himself at a turning point in his life. During the funeral he sees his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). Although he always knew he was raised by his aunt, he has never felt the urge to find out why he doesn’t live with his mother. Thanks to a cousin, he discovers that she lives on the corner with her family and two daughters. Julia is the complete opposite of her sister: she is lively and licentious: nothing is too crazy for her. After the ice is broken between the two, they go out together and introduce John to rock ‘n roll. She also teaches him how to play the banjo. He always has fun with his mother, but a serious conversation about why she ever gave him up doesn’t seem to happen.

Between all the family troubles, John puts on his first band, The Quarrymen (predecessor of The Beatles). It doesn’t take long before he meets a boy who turns out to have a great musical talent: Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster). Their first meeting is a special one, especially because as a viewer you know what has resulted from that acquaintance. The relationship between John and Paul is very exciting anyway. They share the loss of their mother (Paul’s mother died when he was fourteen) and their musical talent. On the other hand, they differ a lot from each other: Paul comes across as much braver, friendlier and more stable than the capricious, unruly and tough John. A certain jealousy is also present here for a while. On the one hand, it’s a shame that the relationship between Lennon and McCartney isn’t pushed a bit more forward, because it would make for a very interesting film. On the other hand, ‘Nowhere Boy’ is interesting enough on its own. Perhaps precisely because it tries to fathom the complex figure of Lennon. Incidentally, George Harrison (Sam Bell) is also introduced, although only indirectly. It’s one of many fun “winks” to what came later, like John’s walk past the Strawberry Fields orphanage, the walrus he draws in his notebook, and his refusal at The Cavern Club.

‘Nowhere Boy’ is largely carried by the actors. Lead actor Aaron Johnson may not be John Lennon’s spitting image, but in a way he definitely resembles him. The young actor is also just as charismatic and magnetizing as the former Beatle. The camera loves him (and so does the director, by the way) and he knows how to bring the different layers of Lennon all into one. Scott-Thomas and Duff are also strong. Beneath her hardened, cold exterior, Scott-Thomas feels a warm and deep love for the boy, and Duff convincingly portrays the tragically manic-depressive Julia. The Liverpool of the fifties, thanks to Seamus McGarvey’s fresh camera work, doesn’t look drab and gray for a change, but vibrant and lively. And although there is hardly any Beatles music, the soundtrack with mainly a lot of rock ‘n roll classics (Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) is excellent. Incidentally, Johnson, Sangster and Bell also sing a number of songs themselves. Lennon’s own song ‘Mother’ should of course not be missing.

You could easily make a twenty-hour film about a complex character like John Lennon. But unfortunately that is not possible and choices have to be made. Debutant Sam Taylor-Wood has certainly not done without credit with her excerpt from Lennon’s recent years. Aided by great actors, a fresh look, a strong soundtrack and a great screenplay, she comes a long way. But somehow the thought gnaws that there could have been (even) more in it. Perhaps a film about friendship cq. the conflict between Lennon and McCartney has been more interesting? It continues to speculate. Anyway, we can conclude that ‘Nowhere Boy’ has become a very entertaining movie. And certainly not just for Beatles maniacs. This biopic is also a wonderful stage for the young Aaron Johnson to show what he has to offer. Because this boy could very well become a very big one!

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