Unless you’re one of those that decided to leave the modern world in favor of a hermit’s life in the woods for the past 50 years, you’re at the very least aware of The Beatles. Regardless of whether you love or hate them, few bands have contributed more to the history of pop-culture than the four mop-top boys from Liverpool, England. It’s not too far to say that their music defined an entire worldwide generation.
At the center of it all was John Lennon. Some know him as the singer-guitar player, others as an activist fighting against US occupation during the Vietnam War. He wrote and performed one of the most beautiful songs of all time in “Imagine” and, some would argue, broke up the band because of his relationship with Yoko Ono. Lennon was one of the most complex and mesmerizing figures of the 20th century and in her film Nowhere Boy, director Sam Taylor-Wood looks at where the man began.
While undoubtedly a risky move to make a film about Lennon without once mentioning the Fab Four, Taylor-Wood and writer Matt Greenhalgh have crafted a beautiful story about the man’s origins that is further propelled by a fantastic performance by Aaron Johnson. Picking up in the midst of future singer/songwriter’s teenage years, Lennon (Johnson) is a popular if not somewhat rebellious kid living with his strict Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and carefree Uncle George (David Threlfall). After the death of his uncle, however, Lennon reconnects with his free-spirited mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who introduces him to Elvis Presley and rock and roll music. But as John kicks-off his music career by forming a band called The Quarrymen and starts to find success, his home life begins to fall apart as he is torn between the woman who raised him and the woman who birthed him.
Any biopic you see will depend greatly on its lead actor, be it Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash in Walk The Line or Jaime Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray. Stepping into the shoes of an icon like Lennon is a formidable task, but one that the 20-year-old Johnson handles resplendently. Introduced to American audiences earlier this year in Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, Johnson perfectly captures all sides of the character. Particularly notable is how the actor captures the emotional range needed for the role, bringing the fun energy required when The Quarrymen are on stage and he is hanging out with his friends, and reaching real depth when dealing with his family conflict.
While the film’s characters are obviously based on real people, the one aspect of the film that falls short is the dynamic between Mimi and Julia, While their performances may have perfectly captured the personalities of the two women, they seem to contrast almost too perfectly. In many ways it’s like watching Goofus and Gallant square off for John’s affection. Greenhalgh’s script would have had even more impact had he not characterized these two women as unrealistic tropes.
By normal standards, if you have John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison as characters in your movie but never show them as The Beatles, it should have the same effect as bringing a gun on stage and never firing it. But it was not Taylor-Wood’s intention to put the well-documented history of the Liverpudlian band back on screen. Instead, she targeted the specific story she wanted to tell and while it has its lulls and issues, it’s strong enough to stand-up on its own.