‘Nowhere Boy’ a strong but unsuccessful effort

By Drew Hunt

It is both a strange wonder and a great blessing that Hollywood has yet to roll out a Beatles biopic. Although it probably has more to do with stringent copyright laws than anything else, it’s encouraging to know an unauthorized feature film of the Fab Four has yet to come to fruition.

Although biopics such as “Ray” are popular and often critically acclaimed, they rarely offer any new or original insight on their subjects. “I’m Not There,” the Bob Dylan film written and directed by Todd Haynes, comes close to rising above the pack, but is ultimately bogged down in self-indulgence.

“Nowhere Boy,” the story of a teenage John Lennon and his discovery of rock ‘n’ roll, does manage to be refreshing and surprising, but ultimately isn’t powerful enough to set it apart from other biopics.

The film, which is the directorial debut of photographer Sam Taylor-Wood, follows a 17-year-old Lennon—played by Aaron Johnson. It tells the story of forming his first band The Quarrymen. It also chronicles the complicated relationship between Lennon, his wayward mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) and his aunt—and de facto guardian—Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas).

Taylor-Wood captures the cultural disruption that was rock ’n’ roll through Lennon’s own burgeoning self-discovery. The seductive force of the music comes through in the way Lennon’s artistic and sexual ambitions are influenced by the officious Mimi and the sensual Julia.

Lennon’s relationship with his mother is as fascinating as it is vexing. Their rapport is compellingly Oedipal and borderline inappropriate. Meanwhile, Mimi’s influence on Lennon is studious on the surface but not without its endearing affectations.

The polemical push and pull makes for a delicate character study, and Taylor-Wood succeeds in steering clear of the typical on-the-nose pitfalls when dealing with such famous subjects. There are no overt references to Lennon or Beatles lore and the film is better off for it. When Lennon becomes acquainted with a young Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster), and later George Harrison (Sam Bell), the scenes play out naturally and without any blatant foreshadowing.

Taylor-Wood’s background as a photographer serves her direction well. She has a keen eye for color—hues of green and reddish brown permeate the film, marking another noteworthy effort from cinematographer Seamus McGarvey who did similarly splendid work in 2007’s “Atonement.”

But because of Lennon’s already firmly established place in history, it will be hard for audiences to fully recognize the dramatic weight implicit in the narrative. As someone who appeared full of conviction in his adult life, it’s almost impossible to recognize Lennon as the vulnerable teen seen in “Nowhere Boy.” Any historical significance is therefore lost.

This is the unfortunate circumstance that comes with trying to shed new light on a man whose story is already so widely established.

Lennon proves to be too large a figure to give the coming-of-age treatment. Our perception of the his legacy is already established, and unfortunately, that legacy does not involve the trials and tribulations of his formative years. Ultimately, “Nowhere Boy” is mired by history—not Lennon’s, but our own.