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Movie Review: Nowhere Boy

By Philip Martin

This article was published November 5, 2010 at 4:21 a.m.

— Though it starts out thrillingly, with the only bit of Beatles music it could (probably) afford, the mysteriously charged “chaaanng” chord that opens a “Hard Day’s Night” (which is, for the record, a Fadd9 played in the first position on a 12-string augmented by a high D note played on bass, a simple piano chord and whatever Ringo was up to), Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy quickly decomposes into a well-made picture of the artist as a young man.

It ought to be better than it is, though it’s hard to say exactly how it could be improved. Maybe the problem is that all those intensely interested in the biographical facts of John Lennon’s life - and therefore those most inclined to seek this well-made, serious movie out - are likely to know this story already, while those with only a casual interest are likely to be underwhelmed by the dramatic arc.

For if you’re familiar with the beats of abandonment and reconciliation in John’s story, you’re likely to have sussed out for yourself what role his flighty mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff ), played in his personal mythology. (She was the subject of at least three of Lennon’s songs, the lilting love song “Julia,” the cri de coeur “Mother” and the lo-fi plaint “My Mommy’s Dead.”) Certainly being caught between the poles of his strident Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his party girl mother, who died when she was struck by a car in front of Mimi’s house when Lennon was 17 years old, informed the artist’s vision - some might argue that he spent his life looking for a mother surrogate.

But the story told here is considerably less bleak than the psychodrama I’d imagined. Turns out that the teenage Lennon lived not in an inner-city slum but in a relatively green, almost suburban area.

Aaron Johnson plays Lennon as cocky, but not as the brash, nasty sort I’d imagined. I remember reading somewhere where he’d told an interviewer that he’d always known he was a genius, that “people like [him]” knew from a young age that he wasspecial, different from other people and that he spent most of his time in school wondering why no one yet had discovered him.

Johnson’s Lennon is more likable than I believe he was, which makes sense because he serves as the audience’s point of entry into the film. We can see his side, even if we don’t always take it.

Finally, there is a degree of restraint in this film that’s uncommon to most rock ’n’ roll bio-pics but entirely in keeping with the British tradition of kitchen-sink dramas. Lennon may have been convinced of his own specialness, but here he seems akin to a fairly common strain of angry young Britisher, a character out of Alan Sillitoe, John Osborne or Kingsley Amis, born even as Nazi bombs were falling.

Lennon made it up and out from the pubs and the dole, but he was not an uncommon type of working-class hero.

MovieStyle, Pages 38 on 11/05/2010

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