John Lennon would have been 71 this year. He might have written a new song or changed again, the chameleon, or he might have simply gone on with the weight of celebrity that never quite seemed to fit him right. Had he lived, he might have written more, produced songs even more beloved than Imagine, Strawberry Fields Forever, and Come Together, or just gone on as he once described as a “loudmouth, lunatic.” There is no way of knowing how he might have felt about the 2009 film Nowhere Boy when it premiered or if whether or not the filmmakers got it right about his tumultuous adolescence. Only Lennon could comment directly on the troubles and the joys leading up to the formation of one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed bands of all time. Yet we might speculate a bit based on the songs he left behind, which Lennon admitted, that were mostly about himself, and consequently how the music informs the film in ways above and beyond what even he may have not expected.
Nowhere Boy is a unique film in that it does not take short cuts or fall victim to the inherent flaws in the movie biopic, instead playing out simply as a coming of age story about a youth with a troubled past fighting for his identity, for his self-expression. Had Lennon been at the premiere in 2010, or if he were involved in the construction of the picture, he might have had a laugh with us or a tear, enjoyed a stroll down memory lane with us, revealing a less familiar side of his life and the happenstance of a boy destined for something greater than he could fully understand. This is the little story before the big story about a group of kids who started small and became The Beatles. Some have cited the title Nowhere Boy as it might refer to a similarly titled song by Lennon, Nowhere Man, suggesting a place where many are from, some are living, and others have no way for sure of returning. It might be best thought of as an ode to lost youth, owned by no one and no place, a free spirit driven to expression and found freedom in the throngs of fans united all over the world.
Nowhere Boy is a subtle, British film that essentially chronicles the period in John Lennon’s life where he is inspired, as well as conflicted, by his estranged family. The story centers on young Lennon, his aunt and mother as he struggles with school and mischief and ultimately finds a way of channeling his energy and voice through music. The film is based on true events and characters though it is artfully realized in a cinematic way, the sort of tooling necessary to elevate everydayness into plot points and narrative structure. Perhaps what is most important is the way in which the material is handled with care by director Sam Taylor-Wood. In the hands of another it might not have gone so well, relying more on melodrama or worse, given over to flights of fancy and fantastical embellishments of the story of the legend rather than the story of the man. If not for the occasional reference to Lennon himself, the sporadic spoken words from his aunt or mother or during a reprimand at school, Nowhere Boy could as easily be a film about an everyday boy fighting through the gray between adolescence and adulthood. We know this is a film about Lennon because we are told so and it is better for this nonchalant revelation.
The cast is impeccable, from Aaron Johnson (Lennon) to Anne-Marie Duff (Lennon’s mother, Julia) to Kristin Scott Thomas (Aunt Mimi); the actors inhabit the characters with a richness that infuses ordinary with interest and cool confrontations with a weight that resonates and gives depth to deeper, more complex emotional expression. Johnson is a convincing Lennon, at once an ill-tempered youth making mischief and then a conflicted artist fighting against odds and everything to find a way to express himself. It is only after rediscovering his mother who happens to live within walking distance, yet nowhere as near emotionally, that young Lennon discovers both a sexual and musical awakening. These scenes are challenging, both for the awkwardness of a damaged mother behaving improperly thought with good intentions with her son, at times mirroring his own socially unacceptable behavior, and for the deep yearning they have for one another that is not meant to be.
Fans will no doubt enjoy this film and the opportunity to explore a side of John Lennon’s life that is generally overshadowed by his career and premature death. The screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh (Control) is based on a memoir by one of Lennon’s half sisters, Julia Baird, providing both a starting place and a sense of uncertainty that fuels curiosity as to the accuracy of the events. Regardless, it is enjoyable to catch the first steps and half-stumbles of Lennon as he formed his first band, The Quarrymen, later meeting Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) and eventually heading off on what would become the beginning of the rest of his life. The story is strong on its own, a broken family and the struggles of a boy and artist to find his way through, to overcome a great many obstacles and reach the level of success every artist sometimes can only dream about. Lennon continues to serve as inspiration and reminder that our hero’s and idols are frequently a lot like us – or at least they started out that way.