FILM REVIEW: Nowhere Boy

At Large

Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood
Written by Matt Greenhalgh
Starring Aaron Johnson (John Lennon); Kristin Scott Thomas (Mimi); Anne-Marie Duff (Julia)
Review by Seth Rogovoy
The first detailed dramatization of John Lennon’s troubled teenage years leading up to the formation of the Beatles, the new film Nowhere Boy does an excellent job of portraying the primal struggles among the young Lennon and the two women who would be his mother – his devoted Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) who raised him, and his biological mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), whom he only got to know in the last few years of her life (she died tragically in a pedestrian-auto accident before the Beatles gained fame).
As the film shows, and as any amateur Freudian can figure out, it was this curious, confusing upbringing – to say nothing of the absence of a father – that contributed to the emotional makeup that fed so much of Lennon’s artistic personality: the obsessive craving for maternal adoration, the naked pain expressed in so many of his songs, and the bitter, sometimes violent wit that he unleashed upon those closest to him.
Aaron Johnson acquits himself amazingly well in the most unforgiving task of metamorphosing from an introverted, moody adolescent into the swaggering, charismatic Lennon who would form a band that he insisted was destined for the “top of the pops.” The film sketches out Lennon’s birth as a musician – the one legacy passed down to him by his mother, Julia – and his initial efforts toward putting together a band (first the Quarrymen, and later the Beatles).
While perhaps the film overemphasizes the role that music played for Lennon as an escape from his tormented emotional life (as opposed to just his sheer joy and love for the music itself), it does a good job in demonstrating how a scrappy skiffle band transformed itself into a professional combo, especially once Lennon is introduced to his invaluable bandmate, fellow singer and songwriter, Paul McCartney. (George Harrison is also seen joining the band, if given somewhat shrift, although that’s probably historically accurate, as Harrison was given short shrift all the way through the Beatles career until they broke up in 1970.)
The film handles the psycho-sexual quirks of Lennon’s relationship to his mother with dignity and sophistication, and avoids any tendency toward exploitation.  The filmmakers portray all the main characters with sympathy and honesty: they’re all hurt and broken and deserving of that sympathy, yet they’re also all selfish and withholding, and, in Lennon’s case, capable of aggression bordering on real violence.
But Lennon’s is a unique story that doesn’t abide by the neat arc of the typical Hollywood biopic, and credit devolves to the filmmakers for sticking to the historical record, doing everything they possibly could to portray these essential, formative years of his with documentary-like authenticity, and engaging the viewer with a portrait of the artist as a young man.
Seth Rogovoy is Berkshire Living’s award-winning cultural critic and editor-in-chief. He is the author of Bob Dylan: Prophet Mystic Poet and The Essential Klezmer.

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