At the arthouse
John Lennon wasn’t the only '60s rock god who suffered in his growing-up years. Jim Morrison famously butted heads with his father the admiral; Janis Joplin was tormented by Port Arthur rednecks. But Lennon’s domestic saga is the only one I’m aware of that plays like a demented soap opera.
Most people know that Lennon was raised by his aunt Mimi; fewer know that, up until he was 17, his mother, Julia, was living just a short walk away from Mimi’s house, though Lennon had grown up believing that she lived very far away. The film Nowhere Boy covers the year in which he discovered both rock and roll and his mother. According to the film, the two were uncomfortably connected for the young men.
“You know what rock and roll is?” Julia coos to him on their first “date.”
I can’t vouch for the line’s historical accuracy. But if Julia said it, then no wonder John went on to put such a premium on outrageousness. He had to compete with his own mother!
At first I wasn't sure the film was going to work. It opens with some half-baked iconography. The famous opening chord of “A Hard Day’s Night” sounds, then we see the young Lennon (Aaron Johnson) running along a street, reminding us of how the Beatles’ film opens with scenes of the Fab Four fleeing their fans. But no one is chasing Lennon, and the image feels forced.
Then as Lennon rides his bike to his Auntie’s house, we see the clearly marked gates to Strawberry Fields. So it didn’t feel like director Sam Taylor-Wood was going for subtlety.
I also had a hard time getting past young Aaron Johnson’s good looks. With his thoroughly bent nose, Lennon was not a pretty boy. Kristin Scott Thomas is properly imposing as the demanding and frosty Mimi, but her emotionally repressed Brit is hardly a groundbreaking character. So the film didn't seem to be creative enough to do its subject justice.
Then a mysterious stranger, who happens to be Lennon’s mother, turns up at a family funeral. Desperately hungry for some maternal love, or least warmth, Lennon seeks her out, and is surprised, to put it mildly, at what he finds. If Mimi represents the repressed end of the emotional spectrum, then her sister Julia is her polar (and possibly bipolar) opposite. The first time she and John get together, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) is a vision in red, a kind of luscious human strawberry.
According to the film, it’s mom who introduces John to rock and roll. To this point he’s been an Angry Young Man of the old British school, getting caned at and kicked out of school, but the new music gives him a way to focus his anger.
Interestingly, the film doesn’t posit Lennon as a musical genius. He had the voice, of course (for my money the most expressive in all of rock and roll), but when he meets the young Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) he can’t do much more than strum on the guitar.
These days we don’t think of McCartney upstaging Lennon, but Sangster’s Paul does so, and effortlessly. Paul's an actual musician, capable of playing rings around John, whom Johnson nicely captures as straddling the line between jealousy and admiration.
When Lennon, the sensitive tough guy, challenges McCartney by saying “you don’t seem like the rock and roll type,” Paul calmly answers “why, because I don’t go ‘round acting like a dick?” The answer clearly gives Lennon something to think about.
The showdown over John between Mimi and Julia develops slowly, but when it finally comes it’s a corker. The story of how John wound up in Mimi’s care is so melodramatic, so frankly over the top, that it’s a testament to actors, in particular the quietly brilliant Scott Thomas, but also the heart-rending Duff and the credibly tormented Johnson, that it somehow rings true.
This was all very satisfying, but after the film was over, I wished I had seen more of Paul. A film that focused more intensely on John and Paul’s relationship could be very powerful, given that they were such opposites. But the film ends with the word “Beatle” left unspoken, though in the final scene Lennon is saying goodbye to a now warmer and human Mimi as he prepares to leave for Hamburg and for his destiny. (The hard-to-find 1979 film Birth of the Beatles deals with the next phase in Lennon’s life very convincingly.)
I left the theater feeling that I’d seen a thoroughly satisfying but pretty conventional biopic, lifted above the norm by the story’s inherent intensity and the acting. But perhaps the film didn’t get all the way to the bottom of Lennon. He was apparently a more mysterious, enigmatic character than he appears to be here.
In the Playboy interview that appeared just before his death, Lennon described himself as a sort of visionary:
I always was so psychic or intuitive or poetic or whatever you want to call it, that I was always seeing things in a hallucinatory way. It was scary as a child, because there was nobody to relate to. Neither my auntie nor my friends nor anybody could ever see what I did. It was very, very scary and the only contact I had was reading about an Oscar Wilde or a Dylan Thomas or a Vincent van Gogh — all those books that my auntie had that talked about their suffering because of their visions. Because of what they saw, they were tortured by society for trying to express what they were. I saw loneliness.
If the film had even hinted at this John Lennon, then it might have been a great film instead of a very good one.