In the sixty-odd year history of modern pop music, there are dozens of artists who have achieved the status of icon or legend, and the most famous names on that list are more globally recognizable than any world leader, but of all those great talents and massive names, I’d say only two acts—The Beatles and Bob Dylan—have transcended that fame to reach another level, a point where the general public can’t even think of them as “people” in the normal sense and whose lives are defined by the images people place around them and not by reality. Other artists came close—Elvis, Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones, Kurt Cobain and a few more—but they were all too human and too open to the public to reach this level of iconography. Dylan’s case is probably easier to explain as he has spent most of his professional life trying to obscure his past and control his legacy. That’s the reason I’m Not There was such a great film, it had almost nothing to do with the reality of Bob Dylan. It isn’t a biopic, but is instead a study of how we, the public, perceive Dylan. The Beatles are different though. The most popular band of all time means so many different things to so many different people that to tell their whole story at once would be nearly impossible. In my opinion, the best way to study them as human beings is not to sum up their career or to look at them as symbols (as Across the Universe tried and failed to do), but to strip away the legends and try to understand what made those four men into what they became. This last option is exactly what director Sam Taylor-Wood tries to do in her first feature, Nowhere Boy, a look at John Lennon’s life in the few years before the band finally formed. And while the film isn’t perfect, it is a much better-then-average biopic.
The facts of Lennon’s life are, of course, public record and common knowledge among Beatles fans. John (played here by Aaron Johnson, best known as the star of Kick Ass) was raised by his strict but loving aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas) and his Uncle George, who died in 1955, the beginning of this film. His mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) was still a major presence in his life, although their relationship was strained by the fact that she had given him up to her sister. Julia, among other things, was arguably his largest musical influence, giving him his first guitar, teaching him how to play and introducing him to rock and roll. Lennon and some of the other troublemakers in his school eventually formed a band called The Quarrymen, and after a few successful shows, they picked up a new guitarist by the name of Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster). Paul’s friend George Harrison soon joins the group (although, unfortunately, his story is, as always, forgotten in all the focus on the John/Paul dynamic), and, after one more tragedy, they finally have their big break (remember, Ringo doesn’t enter until a bit later). Of course there is more to it, and I wish the film had focused on the effects of growing up in post-war England and the various rebel sub-cultures that emerged at the time, but his family relationship and early interactions with his future band-mates are far more important if you’re trying to understand his later life, and they are the focus of this film.
Nowhere Boy opens inside one of John’s dreams. He’s running through the streets, chased by an invisible mob of screaming fans as the opening notes of “A Hard Day’s Night” blare in the background. The movie spends a lot of time trying to explain Lennon’s mindset, and this reference to the greatest film about the Beatles, which comes well before young John picks up a guitar for the first time, shows that he wanted to be famous. This may not seem like a big deal, but if this movie had tried to sanctify Lennon, as most biopics do to their subjects, this dream would not be included. His family issues obviously played a role, but in noting that Lennon wanted to be a star and was not just a victim of the record industry, it rejects some of his saintlier aspects, which makes him a far better human character. In reality, John Lennon was just another kid from Liverpool trying to make it in the rock and roll craze. He wasn’t some wildly charismatic wunderkind, and while Johnson is probably a bit too low key, that aspect of his personality is clear. The two women in his life are the more complex characters, and they required far better performances. Mimi could have been a stereotypically cold and uptight middle class Englishwoman, but Kristen Scott Thomas brings the right degree of warmth and humor to the character so that we can understand why John loved her so much. The film’s most impressive performance though, is that of Anne-Marie Duff. Julia (or at least the Julia portrayed here) was probably a bit mentally ill, and Mrs. Duff does an incredible job of capturing her wild mood swings while not calling too much attention to the semi-Freudian aspects of their relationship that the director and writer clearly hint at. One can’t help but wonder if the vaguely sexual nature of their relationship (which I’d never heard much about before) is somehow related to the twenty-year age difference between Johnson and Taylor-Wood, who have a child together and are currently engaged, something that caused a bit of a stir in the UK during production on the film. Whether they are related or not, it does still make for an interesting aspect of their relationship and an important part of the film.
Most biopics fail because they try to use a single event to explain the complex actions of their subjects. What makes Nowhere Boy different is that the two relationships at the core of the film are both so complex that they make believable catalysts for the parts of John Lennon’s life that we are all aware of (plus it has really good music). Sure, Johnson wouldn’t be my first pick for the role, and I wish more attention had been paid to the atmosphere and the early John-Paul relationship and, despite Taylor-Wood’s background in visual arts, there is nothing particularly inspired in regards to the film’s aesthetic, but this raises the bar for the traditional music biopic by actually presenting the subject as an interesting human being, something films like Ray and Walk The Line were never able to do. If nothing else, this hopefully means the deluge of Beatles biopics that I always kind of expected to see as the surviving members get older (the fact that nobody has tried to make at least a trilogy about them in the sixties surprises me, and yes, you would need that much time to cover the whole story) will try to live up to Nowhere Boy’s level.
Nowhere Boy is rated R for language and a scene of sexuality.
It will open in Boston on October 15th, 2010.
Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood; written by Matt Greenhalgh; director of photography, Seamus McGarvey; edited by Lisa Gunning; original music by Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory; art director, Kimberely Fahey; produced by Robert Bernstein, Kevin Loader and Douglas Rae; distributed by The Weinstein Company; running time: 1 hour 38 minutes.
With: Aaron Johnson (John Lennon), Kristin Scott Thomas (Mimi Smith), Anne-Marie Duff (Julia Lennon), Thomas Brodie Sangster (Paul McCartney), David Morrissey (Bobby Dykins), Josh Bolt (Pete Shotton) and Ophelia Lovibond (Maria).