Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy is not the story of The Beatles but, rather, the story of what would eventually make The Beatles possible. It’s a story of musical discovery and painful coming of age, a family drama that invites every possible opportunity for melodrama but somehow always finds the right note and never descends into overwrought treacle.
Based on the biography by John Lennon’s sister Julia Baird, Nowhere Boy centers on Lennon (Aaron Johnson) as a teenager – inarticulately angry, rebellious, desperate for love and acceptance – and explores how he discovered his voice as a writer and a musician. He is, in a way, an orphan, having contact with neither of his parents and raised in the household of his stern aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his more playful uncle George (David Threlfall). George dies suddenly, an event which devastates John but which Mimi accepts with the stiff upper lip attitude she applies to everything. After the funeral Lennon reconnects with his mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who quietly attends the service and then tries to disappear, and finally finds the affection which he has never received from Mimi.
Because Lennon and Julia have not lived together as mother and son, there is an Oedipal element to their relationship that dominates their scenes together. The time that they spend together feels more like courtship than anything else, particularly the way that Lennon jealously watches the way that Julia behaves around other men. Taylor-Wood plays up the tension between the two characters, giving certain scenes (such as a scene in which Lennon and Julia recline together on her living room couch, listening to music) an intensely and unapologetically sexual overtone that is, for obvious reasons, unsettling and keeps the audience on edge. The element of danger represented in their relationship works particularly well because it underscores the sense of danger that surrounded rock and roll, to which Lennon is introduced by Julia. It’s hard to imagine now, when nearly anything goes in pop culture, but in the time period when this film takes place the mere swivelling of Elvis’ hips was considered a sign that society was about to fall into depravity and chaos and through the relationship between mother and son, Taylor-Wood is able to recreate that sense of anxiety for a 21st century audience.
Julia does not just inform the records that Lennon begins to buy (or, as it turns out, shoplift), she also teaches him how to play, though it’s Mimi who buys him his first guitar. He forms a band called The Quarrymen which eventually accepts into its ranks young Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) and George Harrison (Sam Bell). Though Harrison, as a character, does not really factor into the story, the film hints at the push-pull that would mark Lennon’s relationship with McCartney. Here Lennon is shown as at once valuing McCartney’s skill as an artist and his friendship, while also feeling incredibly jealous of him, of the attention he gets from audiences as well as the attention he gets from Julia. Though still in its infancy, the relationship is already fraught and though it isn’t the film’s primary focus, the story is able to suggest many of the complexities that would mark what is arguably the most important musical partnership of the 20th century.
Much of the drama centers on the battle between Mimi and Julia for Lennon, who seeks out the freedom he finds with Julia but always gravitates back to the stability represented by Mimi. As Julia, Duff renders a performance of great fragility, suggesting the darkness that plagues Julia without allowing those traits to completely define the character. As Mimi, Scott Thomas is a hard nut to crack, a cold character whose inner warmth is slowly revealed. Both women seem desperately human, imperfect but each possessed of something that is necessary to Lennon’s development as a person and a musician. The star of the show, though, is Johnson who is able to balance Lennon’s vulnerability and uncertainty with his bravado and drive to succeed. This is a star making performance and Johnson displays a great deal of promise and charisma as the young Lennon.
Though the film sometimes falls prey to the conventionalities of the biopic genre, overall it is very much worthy of its much beloved subject. It is directed with such confidence that it is stunning to realize that it is Taylor-Wood’s debut as a filmmaker and, like her star, she too displays a great deal of promise. Nowhere Boy is a great debut and a cinematic pleasure.
Watch a trailer for the movie here: