Director: Sam Taylor-Wood
By Roderick Heath
Something that’s always struck me about the music of the peace-and-love era’s pop artists, particularly British ones like Roger Waters, Pete Townshend, and John Lennon, is how much anger, confusion, and frustration often radiates from their lyrics. I got some insight into this through my own father and his experiences as a young British male, a personal key for glimpsing a generation that often felt they were raised like the proverbial mushrooms, kept in the dark and fed on bullshit. “All John Lennon Needed Was Love” states Nowhere Boy’s threateningly facile tagline, but it’s not such a long bow to draw an immediate link between the Beatle’s overt longing for a fellowship of Man and his emotionally bereft, often disturbingly abusive low points. A trait of his generation was the way in which a sense of their own psychological integrity was vitally linked to the state of the world around them, and Lennon exemplified that: the ’70s were, for him, the ultimate bad trip after a euphoric high. It’s clear in hindsight that a private psychodrama that eroded Lennon’s achievements and consumed much of his later life, began in Lennon’s adolescence. Sam Taylor-Wood’s debut directorial feature attempts to discern through Lennon’s experiences a more general bildungsroman: how does the way we’re brought up affect us? Do we sense lies and mysteries in spite of all efforts to hide them? Is it useful to channel these problems into creation, or is that merely self-crucifixion?
Lennon’s life, and others like it, represents heavily-trodden ground for rock biographers, journalists, and memoirists, but not so much for filmmakers. A few ’70s films, especially the fictionalised versions of Lennon’s life That’ll Be the Day and Stardust (both 1974), and Quadrophenia (1979), Franc Roddam’s riff on Townshend’s themes, evoked the teenage highs within the tawdry world of the first Brit-Rock era with immediacy and grit. Alan Parker’s film of the Waters-masterminded Pink Floyd opus The Wall (1982) described with inspired breadth of vision the psychic landscape of a burnt-out ‘60s rock star. Backbeat (1993), a minor, but well-directed and acted account of the Beatles’ crucial years in Hamburg (especially by Ian Hart, his second stab at playing Lennon after the 1991 telemovie The Hours and Times). Backbeat makes for a virtual prequel to Taylor-Wood’s film, which ends with Lennon setting off to Hamburg. Someday, I suppose, someone’s going to take on the unenviable challenge of trying to squeeze the history of pop music’s most definitive band into a feature film, but so far, movies have been content to describe the edges of that phenomenon. Lennon’s status as an avatar for his age’s confused masculinity could, nonetheless, be a cultural lightning rod in the right artist’s hands as much as it was in his own.
Nowhere Boy recounts a defining triangle that’s well known to anyone who’s ever read about Lennon’s life: his relationship with his stern bourgeois aunt and guardian Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas) and his mostly absent, free-spirited but fragile mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff). Julia left John to live with Mimi amidst the wreckage of her marriage, another part-victim of the Second World War’s chaotic impact on settled lives, and also of Julia’s own mental instability; these reasons are at least in part motivations that John (Aaron Johnson) has to discover in a variety of emotional detective story, because they’re deeply hidden under layers of protective propriety. The sudden death of John’s father figure, his Uncle George (David Threlfall), proves a catalyst for John as he’s passing through his middle teens; his behaviour becomes wilder and angrier, and he glimpses Julia for the first time in years, hovering at George’s funeral. When his cousin Stan (James Johnson) pries John away from Mimi for a day trip to Blackpool, he tells John he knows where Julia lives. When John calls on her, she grasps onto him with famished eagerness. After he’s suspended from school for touting pornography, John starts hanging out during the day at Julia’s place, and she introduces him to playing the banjo. That cosy arrangement ends when Mimi finds out what’s going on and confronts the pair; John momentarily spurns Mimi, but is forced to return to her when Julia’s husband Bobby (David Morrissey) worries that having John around might cause another of her breakdowns.
In the meantime, John doodles in notebooks, practises funny voices, cuts class, seduces girls into elementary sex in the park—there’s one of those “fish and finger pies”—and bubbles with latent creativity. He stoically dismisses his headmaster’s abuse by calling himself a genius. As rock ‘n’ roll soon becomes John’s obsession, he finds it’s also Julia’s love, and she gleefully explains the etymology of the phrase. His channelling of his unruly, rebellious, creative energy into that despised art form is partly informed by the alternatives Julia offers, and her own wayward, undisciplined joie-de-vivre and porous boundaries. Discomfortingly, a spark of something suggesting attraction between him and Julia percolates unconsciously as the sensual older woman encounters the good-looking young bloke she barely knows. John, having found a constructive form of rebellion, announces to his mates when they’re gathered for a smoke in the school toilets that he’s going to form a skiffle band. When they prove surprisingly enjoyable at a public performance in a local park, with John’s charismatic, enthusiastic performing drawing real interest, they soon attract Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster) and an alarmingly young George Harrison (Sam Bell). They have prodigious instrumental skills Lennon smartly adopts forthwith, but he’s also jealous of them when he notices they can turn attention, including Julia’s, away from him. Meanwhile, John’s increasingly aggressive, brittle behaviour drives Mimi to ineffective punishments and widens the gap between them.
Nowhere Boy is most distinguished by a smart psychological grasp on its protagonist, depicting aspects of Lennon’s behaviour that would recur throughout his life, and positing the reasons why. Taylor-Wood does bend over backwards to avoid the usual tropes for foreshadowing future greatness, portraying Lennon and McCartney’s first meeting as a deft mix of shy friendliness and power-playing, and the one moment in which a future song is preordained is an ugly one, when John attempts to drunkenly apologise to one of his girlfriends, only for her companion to pull her away dismissing him as a loser. Lennon and McCartney’s crystallising understanding commences when John learns Paul’s still grieving for his recently deceased mother, and is finally sealed, ironically, when John clobbers Paul and then embraces him with desperate self-disgust, in the wake of tragedy. The narrative builds steadily toward a night of crisis that is Lennon’s 17th birthday; Julia throws a party for John and his friends, but John’s seething frustration begins to boil over, and he slams a washboard over a friend’s head, insults Julia and confronts her over her abandonment of him, and then leaves in a fury. Returning to Mimi, he finds she prepared a birthday feast, too, and bought him a new electric guitar. Julia turns up desperate to heal the rift, resulting in a tempestuous airing of dirty laundry that reduces Julia to pleadingly explaining her mental problems whilst being dragged along the floor. John, dazed and forlorn, wanders into the night and awakens in the dawn light on the Mersey bank.
That’s a sustained and effective depiction of the way youthful rites of passage can sometimes turn into eruptive opportunities for catharsis. Duff and Scott-Thomas are excellent at portraying opposites of character and social expectation conjoined in their pained, fractious sisterly relationship, and the preternaturally unusual and infuriating young man they share. Particularly admirable is the scene when the two sisters finally sit down together, Duff’s Julia registering Mimi’s unexpected kindness with the faintest of tremors running through her face. It’s a pity then that Nowhere Boy finally sets its sights rather low, both stylistically and thematically. A common problem with biopics is that they rarely muster anything like the invention of their subjects, and Nowhere Boy is the kind of middle-of-the-road, tasteful piece of work Lennon would likely have mocked. Similar to the pre-Swinging-60s sociology of another recent film, An Education (2009), it fails to recreate visually and convincingly the milieu in any but the most prettified and flavourless of fashions. Like Anton Cobijn, who brought a pungent, yet unforced verisimilitude to Control (2007), his film about Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, Taylor-Wood is a former photographer. This fact usually entails an advanced visual sense and much less advanced drama-shaping skills, but oddly the opposite seems a problem here. Taylor-Wood doesn’t do anything to grit up the long-since deindustrialised environs of Liverpool, and the necessary recreation of the tactile, gritty world that produced the Beatles is missing. There’s not much invention or poetry to the visuals, and though the performance scenes are convincing and enjoyable, there’s little electricity or sense of a talented but inexperienced band getting better.
Taylor-Wood does offer one excellent little flourish, when Julia’s given John his banjo and he strums it clumsily and makes progress in snatches of real-time whilst Julia’s household whirls in time-lapse around him: it’s a strong vision of the kind of self-removal and obsession-mastering any art requires. If Taylor-Wood had mustered more such invention, Nowhere Boy might have added up to more, but it feels like a movie that’s over before it’s getting started. More subtly, it fails as a specific portrait. Johnson’s performance is terrific in its way, in his period mannerisms, playful imitations, and deft reserve of Liverpudlian obscenities, but he never quite seems to have a handle on Lennon’s individualistic humour and spiky intelligence, and he emphasises glowering teen angst to the point of tedium: Lennon’s snaky charm is too often missing. Still, there’s an effective vision of a young man growing into his skin when Johnson’s Lennon, after wasting so much energy trying to appear tough and defiant, walks away from the art college he’s now attending clad in rocker hairdo, blue jeans, and Buddy Holly glasses, clearly, suddenly, stridently in control of his persona and his mind, if not his emotions.
The failure to add up to much is exacerbated by the film’s last-act weaknesses and pat scripting, particularly the common fault of foreshadowing tragedy—Julia’s death in a car accident—with scenes that amble along in just such a way that lets us know something bad’s going to happen purely by their lack of urgency. The very conclusion is airbrushed into a standard-issue crisis resolution, with John seeming to have accepted Mimi as parent and setting off to conquer the world. Completely avoided is John’s later, pained encounter with his long-absent father. Modern films are under the spell of giving us closure, even when it’s inappropriate, and it’s inappropriate here. Although Taylor-Wood’s debut is filled with engaging touches, it still required more daring and personality. The guy who wrote “I Am The Walrus” as well as “I’m A Loser” deserved as much.