DVD Review: Part rock-and-roll thrills and part broken-family ache, Nowhere Boy is a gripping, emotional look at how adolescent John Lennon eventually became “John Lennon.”
There’s always dramatic power, even a giddiness when looking at the early lives of historical legends and pop icons. Lots of “oooh ahhh” moments where we catch glimpses of the youthful emotional currents that help shape later genius. Director Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy, following the life of adolescent John Lennon, falls back almost entirely on such moments.
But thanks to a charming, cheeky, and sometimes aching performance by Aaron Johnson as young John, the film works–both as bittersweet insight into how tension between two very different maternal influences spurred creativity, and as a joyful warm-up for the pop-culture-changing force that was about to be unleashed from Liverpool in the early ‘60s. (Coyly, the B-word is never quite uttered in the film.)
We join Lennon in Liverpool at age 14 in 1955, just as the cozy, stable, conservative home life he’s known with his Uncle George (David Threlfall) and Aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas) comes to an abrupt end. John then reconnects with his flighty biological mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who gave him up to her sister when he was a child.
From then on the film follows the thesis that George and Mimi’s stability gave John his razor-sharp intelligence and bedrock musical appreciation for classical forms, but Julia’s rock-and-roll immaturity encouraged his rebellious nature. Working from a script by Matt Greenhalgh (whose Control also explored rock-and-roll pop-psychology) that’s based on Lennon’s sister Julia Baird’s memoir, first-time director Taylor-Wood sometimes struggles to find a strong narrative path through all this.
Luckily Johnson (Kick-Ass) is terrific as Lennon, balancing a detached, guarded cool with John’s obvious passion and frustrations. The actor nicely keeps all the parts moving and connecting: the moody adolescent rebellion that leads to trouble with school and girls; the sensitive, almost sneaking sentimentality; the sometimes-cruel sarcastic wit; and of course the rock-and-roll ego.
The actresses playing John’s maternal figures also shore things up beautifully. Mimi could have been a thankless, cliché role, as every rebel has to have something to rebel against. But through her stiff British upper lip, Scott Thomas gives the character depth and warmth. And Duff is heartbreaking as Julia, a desperate, manic woman battered by mental instability and an emotionally crippling (borderline incestual) arrested development.
Halfway through, Nowhere Boy shifts chords as John puts together his first skiffle band, The Quarrymen, and there follows the legendary first meeting between John and Paul at a church festival. Thomas Sangster (Love Actually) plays McCarthy as small, quiet and sensitive—a perfect foil to Lennon’s punk swagger, and the live performances that follow give the film an energetic boost.
Fans will find plenty of winks and nods at Things To Come: The curtain rises with the opening chords of “Hard Day’s Night,” we later see Lennon ironically being denied entry to The Cavern club, and the film closes with John and the boys, including Stu Sutcliffe, setting off for Hamburg in 1960.
All this adds up to a sort of “Genius Stew,” a recipe of all the necessary, often tragic ingredients needed. But the subject matter and Johnson, Scott Thomas and Duff’s performances are strong enough to make Nowhere Boy a fascinating, moving, and exhilarating look at how more than success, it’s life’s setbacks and stumbling blocks that fuel true creativity.
More Aaron Johnson from redbox:
More Youthful Rock-and-Roll Attitude from redbox:
- The Runaways
- Cemetery Junction
- Scott Pilgrim vs. the World on DVD and Blu-ray
- Get Him to the Greek on DVD and Blu-ray