Name: Nowhere Boy
Release Date: 2009
Writer: Matt Greenhalgh (screenplay)
Director: Sam Taylor-Wood
Aaron Johnson: John Lennon
Kristin Scott Thomas: Mimi Smith
David Threlfall: George Toogood Smith
Josh Bolt: Pete Shotton
Ophelia Lovibond: Maria Kennedy
James Michael Johnson: Stan Parkes
Anne-Marie Duff: Julia Lennon
David Morrissey: Bobby Dykins
Andrew Buchan: Michael Fishwick
James Jack Bentham: Rod Davis
Jack McElhone: Eric Griffiths
Thomas Brodie Sangster: Paul McCartney
Sam Bell: George Harrison
Christian Bird: Jimmy Tarbuck
Colin Tierney: Alf Lennon
Run-Time: 98 mins.
Studio: Ecosse Films
There’s three kinds of movies about rock bands and musicians: The ones that catch them at their very beginning (“Backbeat“), their very end (“The Last Waltz“) or at some pivotal moment in-between (“I Am Trying to Break Your Heart,” “Rattle & Hum“).
This 2009 biopic by director Sam Taylor-Wood straddles the line between the first and third camps, as it recounts a pivotal year in the life (pardon the pun) of proto-Beatle John Lennon.
The film opens with the teenaged Lennon (Johnson) on the cusp of one of those great leaps in growth and maturity that come upon so many young people as they walk that blurred line between youth and adulthood.
The 17-year-old Lennon here isn’t the bad-boy or revolutionary the wold would come to know. Instead, he’s a quiet and bookish kid who lives a surprisingly respectable suburban existence with his Aunt Mimi (Thomas) and Uncle George (Threlfall). This young Lennon has to be admonished to wear his glasses as he sets off each morning to a school where coat-and-tie make up the uniform.
As was the case in real life, Mimi and George are surrogate parents who dote upon the young Lennon with a mix of classic English discipline (Mimi) and light-hearted fun (Uncle George).
Lennon’s life changes all at once with the shocking and heartbreaking death of Uncle George; the sudden reappearance of his estranged mother Julia (Duff) and his discovery of rock-and-roll.
The latter of the two conspire to put young John in conflict with Mimi — who exhibits a tragically stereotypical English stiff upper lip when Uncle George dies. Julia is everything her sister is not – a free-spirit, a partier, a lover of music and dance. But her very free-spiritedness also conceals a secret that nearly tears the two sisters apart.
Music fans will appreciate the catalytic meeting between Lennon and Paul McCartney (Sangster) and the attention to detail that shows the two young musicians holding their guitars and singing in exactly the same way they’re depicted in period photographs. A young George Harrison (Bell) joins the duo not long after, setting into motion a story that even the most casual of fans now knows by heart.
The script by Greenhalgh perfectly captures the uncertainty of youth and the liberating effect that rock can have on those teenagers who give their lives over to it. And he should know. Greenhalgh also wrote the screenplay for “Control,” the 2007 biopic of the tragic Joy Division singer Ian Curtis.
In her feature debut, Taylor-Wood (whose previous credits include “Love You More,” a 2008 short about two teens drawn together in 1978 by their mutual love for the eponymous single by post-punk band The Buzzcocks) brings color and light to postwar Liverpool, a place that exists in popular memory only in the black-and-white of the Fab Four playing the legendary Cavern Club. Be sure to look, by the way, for an absolutely hilarious scene involving Lennon and the club that was to make his future.
At its heart, “Nowhere Boy” is a love story — but not a romance. It’s a story about the love between Lennon and the two powerful and strong-willed women who shaped him; the transfomative effect that a love affair with music can have on those it seizes and the love between three intensely creative people who went on to change the history of popular music.
But it’s also a survivor’s tale, about the traumas that shaped Lennon and his struggle to overcome them. Some allow themselves to be swallowed by their tragedies. But others turn around and make great art. And both, the love story and the survivor’s tale, are stories that resonate — no matter what the era.