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June 2010

Nowhere Boy

cast: Aaron Johnson, Kristen Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff, Thomas Sangster, and Sam Bell

director: Sam Taylor-Wood

97 minutes (15) 2009
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Icon DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
review by Andrew Darlington



see also, our review of:
Imagine: John Lennon
Nowhere Boy

If "Genius is pain," as John Lennon later claimed, this is where the pain begins. The film opens with a single crashing chord, a ghost-anticipation of A Hard Day's Night, and a solitary teenage Lennon running, pursued by the faint future-echoes of teen-screams to come. As he cycles to school he passes the stone gates of 'Strawberry Fields'. He sketches 'walrus' into his schoolbook pages. Then the vindictively punitive headmaster scolds him "you're going nowhere"... with teasing hints and suggestions. All the events in this film have been explored and evaluated any number of times in a library-full of academic, trashy or scrupulously-researched authoritative books about Lennon individually, or the Beatles collectively.

Seeing it all acted out on-screen gives flesh to the dry text sketches, adds emotional and period depth. First-time director Sam Taylor-Wood, former Turner prize nominated young British artist, invests it with an accessible immediacy that goes beyond archivist musicology, and makes it real. There's no attempt at replicating the character's physical appearance, unlike - say, Ian Hart's John Lennon in Backbeat (1994), a movie that begins where Nowhere Boy leaves off.

Aaron Johnson does not resemble John Lennon, and there's no way of contriving it. Instead, it's more an inner portrayal. This is a fucked-over young Lennon caught up in a bewildering storm of adolescent hormones, half-memories, glimpses of things, the sounds of his mother's sex-life in the night, pain and confusion, with the deep swirling tides of the Irish Sea to suggest hidden depths and unfathomable currents, topped off by the tawdry Blackpool funfair to suggest his aggressively-posed frivolity.

Contemporaries continue to refer to the young Lennon as a 'rebel'. Reviews of Nowhere Boy routinely describe him in that way. Which is deceiving, but rebel is now the default setting. For an adolescent not to rebel is now in some way unnatural. It was not so in that conformist time. Elvis might have been perceived as a rebellious force, but at heart he was a patriotic god-fearing American good ole country-boy. Cliff Richard might have been briefly a disruptive rocker, but he was into showbiz, not rebellion.

To be the rebel then was not a marketable pose, it was to be the marginalised outsider; a troublemaker, out of step with society. For Lennon to be a rebel was to mark him out as different. And his was a complex dilemma. John lives in the pleasant middle-class Woolton suburb three miles from Liverpool city centre, in a neat semi-detached called 'Mendips' on Menlove Avenue, with his morally uptight and elegantly respectable Aunt Mimi. There's a photo of the real infant Lennon on Mimi's mantelpiece.

He listens to Tony Hancock and Kenneth Williams on the radio, unaware that his uncle George has collapsed on the stairs outside his room. Distressed when he dies, Aunt Mimi rebukes him for being silly. Then mother Julia reappears. She lives for 'Fun Fun Fun' - sorry, wrong 1960s' band! She takes young John to Blackpool and plays Rocket '88 on the pier café juke-box, crediting it correctly to Ike Turner even though at the time she wouldn't have known that, because it was issued under the Jackie Brenston alias. "You know what it means, rock 'n' roll?" teases Julia "- sex."

In the film she takes him to see Elvis on the local fleapit newsreel. Others claim Lennon saw Elvis at his most surly in Jailhouse Rock at the Palais de Luxe with early girlfriend Thelma Pickles. Perhaps Goldsmith graduate Taylor-Wood conflates the two incidents, enabling John to ask "Why couldn't god make me Elvis?" So that Julia can jibe supportively "Cos he's saving you for John Lennon." Yes, we know, bigger than Jesus. Nevertheless, he greases his hair into a Presley quiff as Shake Rattle & Roll corrodes the soundtrack.

John and sidekick Pete Shotton shoplift some jazz records from a music store - maybe NEMS? He trades them with a 'Cunard Yank' for a copy of Screaming Jay Hawkins' I Put A Spell On You. Julia is turning him on to R&B. She blows into his harmonica, "your spit's my spit anyway." Then she teaches him the basic banjo-chords for Maggie May - a song the Quarrymen will use to open their first set. And a 40-second snippet of which will be squeezed into the play-out groove of the original un-stripped Let It Be album. "Who's Maggie May?" he queries innocently. "A Whoo-er," reveals Julia flirtatiously.

Soon he upgrades to a red £7 acoustic guitar, and rehearses That'll Be The Day. Nowhere Boy essentially charts the formative three-way love-pain equation that is John, Julia and Mimi. Julia wears red, and Mimi wears prim black; a moral colour-coding, with John torn between two mothers: Mimi, who provides stability and security, and Julia who represents bohemian escape. "In Freudian terms," explains The Observer's film critic Philip French, "the stern Mimi, a practitioner of what we now call 'tough love', is at work on John's super-ego, while the rebellious Julia, offering unconditional love, is exciting his id. In religious terms they're his good and bad angels."

But the film also puts in place the roots of the next big equation in his life, the one that goes 'Lennon-McCartney'. The Beatles narrative begins when 16-year-old Lennon meets Paul McCartney in the leafy grounds of St Peter's parish church where the Quarrymen play the annual Woolton village fete. That Sunday - 7th July 1957, is one of those fateful dates that has since assumed epic world-shaping significance, but at the time meant very little to anyone. Not even to its participants. It was a shy and awkward meeting. Former Quarryman bassist Ivan Vaughan introduces a boyish Paul in white sports coat and pink carnation. "Paul plays too," prompts Ivan. "What? With himself?" teases John, then more conciliatory "I do. All the time. It's good for the wrist muscles."

John notes that the new kid can play guitar, upside-down, pretty good for a left-hander. And he knows his way around the chords of some American rock 'n' roll. That's something worth knowing. Paul works his way through Eddie Cochran's Twenty Flight Rock as John appraises him critically. For Apple publicist Derek Taylor, this is the moment that "the 20th century's greatest romance" began, when the two met and 'clicked'. Was it really as Nowhere Boy imagines? It seems feasible. It must have been something like that. Perhaps this is about the closest we're ever going to get?

They check each other out warily. "You don't seem like the rock 'n' roll kind of guy," accuses John. "Why, because I don't go around smashing things up and acting like a dick?" responds the 'Scouse Duane Eddy', "it's the music. That's it. It's just the music. Simple." But when Paul admits his mother Mary recently died of cancer, which firms the forming bond. Now Paul wears pointed-toe shoes. And there's a running gag about John not wearing his glasses, despite Mimi's regular prompts. It recurs when Paul is taken aback as he fumbles his specs on, the better to see his fingering as they rehearse Blue Moon together. "My Buddy Holly look," he snaps defensively.

Paul suggests "we should write our own stuff." He's already astute, "that way you don't get stiffed by record companies." This introduces a drawback, which also afflicts Backbeat. Movie-makers can soundtrack Duane Eddy's Movin 'n' Groovin, and Paul croons Love Me Tender to Julia ("that was for her, wasn't it, your mum?" she says), and a bunch of studio-musos, including Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory add incidental links, but the rights to Beatles songs are not so easy to acquire. After an evening of family revelations splurged out during a big Mimi-Julia confrontation on John's birthday he walks out drunk into the Liverpool night, gets turned away by the bouncers at 'The Cavern', and sleeps on a bench overlooking the Mersey.

The brief family reconciliation that follows is violently exploded when Julia is killed in a hit-and-run as she leaves Mendips. As John premieres his first song, Hello Little Girl, to Paul... The Beatles will do the song for their failed Decca audition. Gerry Marsden claims he turned the song down when John offered it to him to record. Eventually Brian Epstein bequeaths it to the Fourmost, as their golden ticket into top 10. Meanwhile, as the post-Julia family axis shifts, the new configuration emerges. John thumps Paul. Then they embrace. There's an envelope left for him by Julia, with "a few bob in there."

A guy called Percy F. Phillips has a small monophonic recording and mastering facility set-up in the front room of his Victorian terraced house at 38 Kensington. The group use Julia's legacy to record In Spite Of All The Danger in his front-room studio, for 17s 6d. Oddly, the song constitutes the only extant McCartney and George Harrison collaboration, which is now available on The Beatles Anthology 1 double-CD. They also record Buddy Holly's That'll Be The Day during the same one-take session. After which the group are set to embark for Hamburg. Mimi has to fill out the documentation. "What am I, parent or guardian?" she wonders. "'Both," says John firmly, in final reconciliation.

For the White Album John writes Julia. He names his first son Julian. The credits roll over the third original song, an out-take version of John's primal therapy Mother, from the Plastic Ono Band album, recorded to exorcise the demons of memory. Turning pain into genius... To listen to Mother, is to hear the adolescent John Lennon screaming out the pain and confusion of separation, isolation and loss, crying out for his dead mother. And it's possibly his finest ever artistic achievement, for this is an album that retains its ability to provoke highly unsettling reactions in its audience. Watching Nowhere Boy now helps you understand it better. But what is there in the film for those not sufficiently steeped in Beatles-lore to tease out all the subtlety? Well, everyone is in on the tale far enough to get a powerful jolt from this movie.

DVD extras: Lennon's Liverpool featurette, director interview and commentary, the recreation of Lennon And The Quarrymen featurette, and Anatomy Of The Scene: That's When I Stole Him.



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