Here is not the place, and now is not the time to muse on our society’s fascination with the biographical. How, from the tittle-tattle of the daily and weekly rags to the most meticulously researched volumes that could grace any bookshelf, we are unable to look away when offered a glimpse behind the veneer of fame, infamy and occasionally – but increasingly rarely, I could moan – genius.
However, drawing your attention to that self-evident truth serves well as an introduction to Nowhere Boy, a film that, despite being eloquently and sharply written, earnestly portrayed, artfully constructed and an obvious labour of love, is elevated from its roots as kitchen sink family drama solely by the identity of its central character.
Watch in amazement as Oasis fans discuss the crushingly awkward, bordering on oedipal relationship the central protagonist has with his long-estranged mother. Gasp as grown men appreciate the youthful awakening and the painful transition to adulthood which the story touchingly outlines. Wonder exactly why Gary from down the pub is philosophising on a movie about broken families, the repression of 40s and 50s Britain, sisterly reconciliation and heartbreaking loss, almost solely because he quite liked some of the songs the central character (John Lennon, should you be wondering) would go on to write.
As my wife, in her typical cutting-through-the-bullshit-without-even-knowing-she’s-holding-a-shovel manner put it: “Funny… ‘cause it’s not a boys movie, is it?”
No. No it isn’t.
In eschewing the chiming arch gimmickry of I’m Not There (Dylan), the titillation of Almost Famous (Zep, Creedence, Allman Bros. et al) and the stories that absolutely everybody who cares two jots already knows (The Doors), Nowhere Boy carves itself a little niche of its own, helped by using the trick of ending its tale just as the real one is beginning and the first incarnation of The Beatles are departing for Hamburg to star in Backbeat.
Unfortunately, that niche is not inhabited by the usual audience for stories about rock ‘n roll stars.
There is nothing in here that will surprise serious Beatles fans, apart from the standard issue scriptwriter penchant for playing faster and looser with the facts than the more fastidious amongst us would like, which Matt Greenhalgh, who penned the equally laudable Joy Division bio, Control, certainly does.
Simply put, save for, maybe, Elvis and Dylan, the life and motivations of John Winston Lennon have been picked over more than any other of the rock music ‘greats’. So, most fans, even those with little more than a passing interest, will know about Julia Lennon (the ‘missing’ mum), Aunt Mimi (who raised the young boy), Mendips, Quarry Bank School, The Quarrymen and Cynthia, maybe even the Gallotone Champion acoustic guitar Mimi buys John in one of the film’s more delightfully touching scenes.
Greenhalgh brings all the well explored elements together nicely, though not necessarily in the right order. But what he does achieve is to make them add up to a dramatic point: about the insecurity and fear at the heart of the young Lennon, and the reasons for his rebellion, attraction to rock ‘n roll, cutting, often cruel,humour, off-handed aloofness and devil may care abandon.
Don’t be fooled, though. Don’t be afraid. Nowhere Boy is still a rock biopic. All the elements you’d expect are there too: the single-minded selfishness of the central character, tentative first meetings with eventual bandmates (Thomas Sangster, a.k.a. Latimer from Doctor Who‘s Family Of Blood episode – no, really – as Paul McCartney, and newcomer Sam Bell as George Harrison), a learning-the-tunes montage, the cathartic moment that steels the protagonists vision (actually, there are two), men hugging, good hair… Oh yeah, it’s all here.
What director Sam Taylor-Wood does is dress up the stock elements the script provides very nicely. Nowhere Boy, in its mix of muted suburban scenes, fuzzy dreamlike half-seen Liverpudlian locales, and pitch perfect costumes and note perfect performances, is undoubtedly an extremely accomplished piece of costume drama.
To see Aaron Johnson shift gear from this on to Kick-Ass shows him up as an interesting talent, though he’s possibly a little too buff and certainly too blue-eyed for a young Lennon, his performance blossoms as the film goes on, and the emotions escalate.
However, as the plaudits have reflected, though, and history bears out, it’s the ladies in Lennon’s life that really run the show. As such, this movie really belongs to Anne-Marie Duff and Kristin Scott Thomas, both of whom smoulder in their own different ways, before converging into a truly believable sister act just prior to the film’s dénouement.
Nowhere Boy would not have been a major motion picture had its main character not been John Lennon, or someone equally famous. It’s as simple as that.
It’s an earnest film, and a good one, but not a story that is really strong enough to stand alone without the pillar of Lennon’s fame to support it. Its existence fills a gap in Beatles history, and serves as an interesting insight, but there’s little more here. Its range and scope only present a microcosm of what Lennon was, a snapshot of him at certain time, and, as he outgrew Liverpool, he quickly outgrows this movie.
The well presented DVD disc also includes Sam Taylor-Woods’ commentary, documentaries covering the making of Nowhere Boy and the way it represents Lennon’s Liverpool, a photo gallery and theatrical trailer.
The docs are pretty standard stuff, but interesting, especially the one looking at 50s Liverpool.
Nowhere Boy is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.