Last Saturday, John Lennon would have turned 70. Gives you pause, doesn’t it? It’s equally sobering to realize that in December, Lennon will have been dead for 30 years. His assassin, Mark David Chapman, is now 55.
The passage of time doesn’t seem to have dulled interest in Lennon, perhaps because he so deftly presented a variety of faces to the public, many of them driven by irrepressible wit and sustained artistic rebelliousness. And unlike many other pop-world phenoms, Lennon’s musical talents seem to have expanded and deepened as he grew older.
Nowhere Boy, a look at Lennon’s pre-Beatle years in Liverpool, is a welcome but slightly odd addition to Lennon lore. Welcome because it tells one of the less familiar parts of the Lennon story. Odd because it mixes giddy rock energies with serious family drama as it introduces us to a pitched psychological battle between the two most important women in young Lennon’s life. Lennon (Aaron Johnson) lived with his aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas), but frequently visited his mother (Anne-Marie Duff).
Lennon often found himself at odds with his straitlaced aunt Mimi, particularly after the death of her husband (David Threlfall), an uncle who liked to tipple and who seemed a little too eager to share in Lennon's adolescence. Unlike her sister, Lennon's mother encouraged her son's rebelliousness, and, at least according to this movie, sparked Lennon’s interest in rock. Lennon’s mother, we’re told, first told him that at heart, rock ‘n roll is about sex.
Nowhere Boy is a complicated family story with nuances best discovered in a theater. Know, though, that director Sam Taylor-Wood, working from a script by Matt Greenhalgh, touches the significant points of Lennon’s musical development even as we're immersed in the young man’s fragmented family torments.
I won’t say that Taylor-Wood has solved the problem of how to introduce Lennon landmarks, but they are introduced. We’re witness to Lennon’s introduction to rock ‘n roll; his discovery of Elvis; his acquisition of a first guitar; his early gigs with the “skiffle” group, The Quarrymen; and his eventual departure for the clubs of Hamburg, the cradle where the Beatles really were formed.
Based on a memoir written by Julia Baird, one of Lennon’s half sisters, the gist of the movie presumably rings true, and both Scott Thomas and Duff give fine performances in roles that gradually veer away from the outlines of caricature. Scott Thomas’ Mimi was ferociously responsible; Duff’s Julia was flighty and flirtatious, hovering on the border of inappropriateness, even with the son she obviously adored. It’s as if it took both sisters to make a whole woman.
Johnson manages a neat trick. At times, he looks a bit like Lennon; other times, not so much. But he captures Lennon’s engaging impertinence and budding talent. Equally good is Thomas Brodie Sangster, who plays the young Paul McCartney and in whom we see traces of the soon-to-be-born Beatle.
Of course, the movie is informed by everything that followed in the wake of Lennon’s adolescence, namely the phenomenal rise of the Beatles, but a variety of family photographs – real ones shown with the end credits – are as poignant as anything in the movie. They made me wish that a 70-year-old Lennon were still around to tell us what he thought of those formative Liverpool years.
It’s not only the ascendance of the Beatles, but the loss of Lennon that echoes throughout this small and sometimes telling movie. Maybe that’s why Nowhere Boy's frequent attempts at buoyancy can't entirely mask its deep and underlying sadness.