Sony // 2009 // 98 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // January 25th, 2011
The Extraordinary Untold Story Of John Lennon.
"It's the music, just the music. That's it."
Growing up in 1950's England, John Lennon (Aaron Johnson, Kick-Ass) finds his teenage years to be a turbulent time. Having been brought up by his strict aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas, The English Patient), John's life is turned upside down by the reappearance of his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff).
But as Lennon's home life reaches its most difficult point, he finds purpose through a love of rock 'n roll. A chance encounter with Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster, Love Actually) sets him on the path to greatness.
John Winston Ono Lennon. Icon. Genius. Poet. Idol. It's unimaginable to think of a world without John Lennon's influence. As a member of The Beatles, Lennon was one quarter of the greatest and most creative band the world has known -- or is ever likely to, for that matter. His songs, as both a member of The Beatles and a solo artist are universally lauded and cherished by generations the world over. From the heartfelt yearning of "Julia" to the mind-blowing "Tomorrow Never Knows," Lennon is one of the few who can claim to have genuinely changed the face of music, forever. But what is often forgotten -- perhaps more so by those of my generation -- is that there once existed a world before The Beatles. Enter Nowhere Boy, an informative though flawed look at Lennon's formative years, and the birth of The Fab Four.
Nowhere Boy spends a large portion of its time examining John's relationship with his estranged mother, Julia. Having been brought up by his well-to-do auntie, John is seen to be taken aback by the free-spirited nature his errant mother possesses. Their relationship proves to be difficult for John, with Julia never really able to be the mother he wants or needs. Instead, Julia sits somewhere between being a girlfriend and a cool older sister. The sharp contrast between Julia and Mimi, undoubtedly the two most influential figures on John during this period, is shown to be the root of much turmoil for John, and the cause of his increasingly spiteful tongue. Naturally quick witted, John's humor becomes increasingly snide, as he struggles to better understand his complicated upbringing. It is this anger that becomes the catalyst for Lennon's increased immersion in music. Though he finds conflict here too, albeit in the form of a friendly rivalry with Paul McCartney.
Played particularly low-key and lacking bombastic overtones, the first meeting between Lennon and the younger, wiser, and musically more adept McCartney, is magical. The two form an unlikely friendship, with Lennon's abrasive personality clashing with McCartney's more laid-back nature. As their friendship grows, we see the start of the competitiveness that would later push both men to break musical boundaries.
Director Sam Taylor-Wood, in her feature length debut, reveals a strong eye for characters, yet still employs an understated approach to some of the more important moments of Beatles lore. And though we get to see legendary moments such as George Harrison's introduction, Wood ensures Lennon is front and center at all times; other characters are very much left in the shade, with the exception of Mimi and Julia. The film's title is particularly apt, as Lennon is certainly seen as having "no point of view, knows not where he's going to." Confusion, fear, and an undeniable self-belief are the keystones of Lennon's character, and Wood ensures these traits are clearly articulated.
Wood ends Nowhere Boy with a series of black and white photographs showing John from 1942 to 1965, as his song "Mother" plays in the background. Though nothing more really than a slideshow, its undoubtedly a powerful finale as we see the formation of The Beatles (sans Ringo) unfold. It's oddly touching seeing John, Paul, and George as mere boys, yet only a few short years away from immortality. It's impossible for any film to capture the excitement and uncertainty they must have felt, but thanks to Sam Taylor-Wood's film, it's suddenly a little easier to imagine.
The lead trio of Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, and Anne-Marie Duff are excellent. Johnson betters his star turn in Kick-Ass, and handles Lennon's complexities seemingly with ease. The cockiness that would be synonymous with Lennon during Beatles interviews is captured well by Johnson, who delivers Lennon's fast quips and putdowns with relish. Better still are the small moments shared between Johnson's Lennon and Duff's Julia. A key scene, one which best captures the pair's relationship, sees Julia snuggle up to John on the couch. Julia, all carefree and relaxed is the polar opposite of a tense John, unsure of where to look or place his hands. Of course, Julia has her moments of weakness, and Duff is well up to these. The impression given by Duff in her reading of the role, is that Julia just wasn't meant to be a mom. Though her love for John is never in doubt, she lacks the commitment required to care for and nurture a child. In the moments where her character is forced to acknowledge this, Duff emotes without resorting to histrionics. Kristin Scott Thomas' pedigree is such that it is a given her portrayal of Mimi will be flawless; and it is. When Mimi's stiff upper lip is forced into submission, and her emotions come rushing forth, Scott Thomas reveals the warmth within Mimi, whose love for John is, it seems, truly unconditional.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer shows only minor traces of softness, in what is otherwise a reasonably sharp picture. Colors are natural, rather than vibrant, and detail levels are good. The 5.1 Dolby Digital soundtrack makes up in clarity what it lacks in range.
The extras are slightly disappointing. A few deleted scenes, none of which add much, are joined by two featurettes. The first, "The Making of Nowhere Boy" does exactly what it says on the tin. At under 10-minutes, the featurette lacks much depth, and is really only a fluff piece produced to help promote the movie. Slightly more interesting is "Nowhere Boy: The Untold Story of John Lennon and the Creation of The Beatles." Clocking in at a little under 15-minutes, we get to hear Beatles historian Martin Lewis wax lyrical about the film, and The Beatles.
If Nowhere Boy has a failing, it's that for all its competence and ability to entertain, the film just doesn't go far enough. Unless you are only interested in John Lennon, in which case you'll be well catered for, there just isn't enough insight into the actual music. Likewise, there just isn't enough focus on The Beatles. Perhaps it's unfair, when the film's only remit is to help us better understand Lennon before he became the legend, to criticize the film on this level; but I challenge any Beatles fan not to feel the same. When you are presented with the first meeting between Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison, it's impossible not to want the film to focus more on this aspect of the story. This is history, to be so single minded in its approach feels almost unforgivable.
It's also arguable that, without prior knowledge of what Lennon would become, Nowhere Boy perhaps lacks enough to actually keep its audience captive for the full 98-minutes. Minus the end product we all know, and without enough attention paid to the actual birth of The Beatles, Nowhere Boy could very well be just another kitchen-sink drama. Another failing-again, purely down to the film being Lennon focused-is the yearning I had for more McCartney. Make no mistake, without McCartney there is no Beatles; and so to see him featured so fleetingly throughout the film is quite frustrating, especially considering the warm depiction provided by Sangster.
Despite some interesting insights into Lennon's formative years, Nowhere Boy is too narrow in focus to truly engage the viewer. Still, Taylor-Wood has crafted an emotional, and quite personal story that reminds us all that, before 1962, John, Paul, George, and Ringo were no different to anyone else.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes