Meet the Beatles via Lennon myth and melodrama
"Nowhere Boy,’’ a stormy melodrama about the life of the adolescent John Lennon, is presented to us as a creation myth — pure rock ’n’ roll catechism. From the famous “Hard Day’s Night’’ intro chord that opens the film — kerANNGG — to John (Aaron Johnson) cycling past a sign reading “Strawberry Fields’’ to his mum (Anne-Marie Duff) teaching him a salty little ditty called “Maggie May,’’ there’s no end to the pop culture elbow-nudging. “Why couldn’t God make me Elvis?’’ the boy asks his mother in despair, and when she replies, “Because He was saving you for John Lennon,’’ out in the dark we’re meant to nod in unison, yes, yes, He was.
Well, yes, I guess He was, and part of the film’s undeniable pleasure lies in watching its young hero slowly get it together and start aiming for the top. Adapted from a memoir by the singer’s half-sister, Julia Baird, “Nowhere Boy’’ is a sturdy evocation of a late-1950s Liverpool that’s no place for a manic rebel misfit to call home.
Or her son, for that matter. The film’s most interesting supposition is that John got his temperament and talent — his rock ’n’ roll DNA — straight from his mother, Julia, even as he was growing up under the roof of Julia’s older sister, Mimi Smith (Kristin Scott Thomas). The latter took charge of the boy when he was 5, after his father abandoned him and his mother proved emotionally incapable. Mimi’s capable, all right; she’s the sort of frosty stiff-upper-lipper who tells a weeping John after his Uncle George (David Threfall) has died, “Just the two of us now; let’s get on with it.’’
At some odds with known facts, “Nowhere Boy’’ says that John didn’t reunite with Julia until he was 14, even though she lived within walking distance. Eager to escape Mimi’s controlling clutches, he’s soon hanging out with his mother and her two young daughters after school, and when he gets suspended he tells her but not his aunt. Which is fine by Julia, since she has never bothered to grow up herself.
Johnson, a changeling British actor who was most recently the lead in “Kick-Ass,’’ is solid and affecting, and he’s not afraid to show John’s obnoxious streak — he gets the anxiety that can make a boy a bully. That said, Duff gives the most startling performance in “Nowhere Boy.’’ The movie presents Julia as an undiagnosed manic-depressive, and when she’s on (which is whenever she’s with John), she lights up with a desperate, flirty energy. Her afternoons with her son are more like dates, Julia cranking up the diner jukebox and shimmying around the stools, peppering him with kisses, just about hopping out of her skin with happiness and nerves. John’s delighted and appalled; on a level the movie dares not go, he’s also turned on.
“Nowhere Boy’’ charts the first stirrings of Lennon’s rock ambitions: the first guitar (bought by Mimi in the movie; Julia in actuality), the first skiffle group, the first meeting with Paul (wide-eyed Thomas Brodie Sangster). The earth doesn’t move but Matt Greenhalgh’s script does set up the primal opposition: “Wanna beer?’’ asks John. “I’d love a tea,’’ responds Paul. Soon he’s advising his new partner, “If we’re going to do this, we should write our own stuff.’’ Paul’s not munching an apple when he says this, for which the filmmakers should probably be commended on their restraint.
The filmmaker, in fact, is Sam Taylor-Wood, a photographer and conceptual artist making her feature film debut. Her wonderful 2008 short, “Love You More,’’ about two punk kids in the 1980s, proved that Taylor-Wood understands rock ’n’ roll, and the best scenes in “Nowhere Boy’’ tap into that sense of delirious release: Young George Harrison (Sam Bell) proving his guitar chops with a growling Link Wray instrumental or the gobstopped look on John’s face when he hears Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You.’’
Yet Taylor-Wood isn’t confident or skilled enough to keep “Nowhere Boy’’ from turning into soap opera. After Julia’s demons come to the surface, Mimi reveals the facts behind the hokey dream images that have haunted John throughout the movie; that those facts are by all accounts true doesn’t make the scene feel less cooked-up. Hoping to ennoble Lennon’s life with histrionics, the movie ends up cheapening it.
By now, you could put together an entire film festival charting the singer’s career: The Hamburg years (1994’s “Backbeat’’), the post-Beatles era (1985’s “John and Yoko: A Love Story’’), the vacation with Brian Epstein (1991’s “The Hours and Times’’). (About all that’s missing is a feature about the infamous 1973 “lost weekend’’ in LA; I nominate Joaquin Phoenix to play Harry Nilsson, Brenda Song as May Pang, and Justin Long as the Kotex.) “Backbeat’’ remains by far the best of these movies at acknowledging and dispelling the myths that have encrusted around the Beatles — a process that reflects the ambivalence that fueled Lennon himself and led to some of his greatest art. Remember, this is a man who sang, “Just Gimme Some Truth.’’ As sympathetic and well-turned as it is, “Nowhere Boy’’ only gives us more mythology.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.