DVD Review: Nowhere Boy

by | Jan 27th, 2011 | 6:19PM | Filed under: DVD Reviews, Movies

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.

Nowhere Boy is available from redbox.

Read my interview with Nowhere Boy star Aaron Johnson.

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5 Responses to “DVD Review: Nowhere Boy”

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    carol
    Posted on January 29, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    I liked the autobiography of John Lennon I had seen a while back, not “Nowhere Boy” but an autobioghraphy I can’t remember the name of and throughly enjoyed it. I can’t wait to see “Nowhere Boy”. I have always liked “The Beatle’s” and all the solo directions all their careers took them. They were always an extreme favorite of mine as a teenage girl. Even as they matured and went their own separate directions with their lives and careers I still loved all their music and all of them, always. Of course they had all endured their growing pains and I think we all grew up with them as they grew up as well. During the era of the “Sexual Revolution” and their music and their lives there were some moments that my parents had concerns over of their influence of me. Not, just someone to blame on my parents part. I was and still am responsible for my own actions. Anyway I can’t wait to see the movie “Nowhere Boy” and by the way I really enjoy his son Julian’s music as well. He has vocals to me exactlly like John, his father. I respect and think a lot of Shaun or Sean or Saun, however you spell the young man’s name but I don’t hear the talent with him I do with Julian; but that’s just my opinion. Who am I?

    • Currently 4/5 Stars
    Kristin
    Posted on January 30, 2011 at 8:41 am

    Rented this last night and truly loved it! A few of the Scouse accents are tricky to understand, but that’s my only complaint, which can’t really be considered a complaint if they’re using proper accents for Liverpool. Aaron
    really seemed to channel John Lennon and he was true joy to watch. Great movie!

    • Currently 4/5 Stars
    TrevorL
    Posted on February 10, 2011 at 10:36 am

    Finally watched it. A very good and emotional movie. I almost cried at parts, and that’s not easy to make me do. Highly recommended even for those that aren’t fans of.. you know, that band (whatever it was called).

  1. Gist
    Posted on October 16, 2012 at 3:29 pm

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