John Lennon was one of the edgiest, rawest and brightest music spirits ever to merit pantheonic status, and in dramatizing a pivotal spell of his teenage years, “Nowhere Boy” only partly captures his depth and passion.
But what an immersing, entertaining treat it is for those who loosen expectations and surrender to director Sam Taylor-Wood’s warm, credible and deeply human picture of the young Lennon and the people who shaped him.
Working from a screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh (adapting a memoir by Lennon’s half-sister Julia Baird), Taylor-Wood’s story begins in 1955, when John (Aaron Johnson) is a restless, cocky 15-year-old in Liverpool, and goes to 1960, when he departs for Hamburg with the band soon to become the Beatles.
In between, he misbehaves in school, forms a band called the Quarrymen, sports Elvis hair and Buddy Holly glasses, and bonds with a baby-faced guitarist named Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster).
The drama combines John’s musical ascent with a domestic predicament that, as Taylor-Wood demonstrates by playing Lennon’s angsty “Mother” at closure time, would continue to haunt Lennon.
Having lived with his loving but stern aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) for the past decade, John aches with questions about his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), and why she abandoned him.
After learning she lives nearby, they reunite; his fun-loving mother delights him by turning him on to rock ’n’ roll. Yet she is unstable and irresponsible and, in the film’s most provocative passage, treats him more like a date than a son.
Her newfound bond with John creates a triangle in which Julia and Mimi battle over the teenager.
The film overdoes the melodrama and suffers from conventionality, a quality hardly befitting its protagonist.
Similarly, Johnson’s on-track but bland performance doesn’t convey Lennon’s sharpness and intensity.
But Taylor-Wood, in this impressive feature debut, overcomes the weaknesses by keeping things emotionally real, character-focused and fun in the way that a Beatles prequel should be. (It’s a kick, for starters, to see John beam at the sight of his first guitar.)
She’s made a biopic sweet with nostalgia and a coming-of-age tale with dramatic grip.
Not letting the melodrama upstage the human element, Taylor-Wood allows the actors to create multidimensional characters, and Scott Thomas and Duff, in particular, deliver sensationally. Their rich performances suggest how the young Lennon jelled.
As for the music, there’s just a jot of actual Beatles material, but references sprinkled throughout should tickle fans, whether John is being called a “loser” or doodling walruses.
Starring Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Anne-Marie Duff, David Morrissey
Written by Matt Greenhalgh
Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood
Running time 1 hour 37 minutes