Oh, we already know how it ends! John Lennon starts a band and ends up bigger than God. Before that, though… whew. There’s a whole lotta psychosexual stuff packed into Nowhere Boy, the tale of Lennon’s adolescence in Liverpool, which may or may not be true, but it sure makes for a smashing film.
Based on the memoir by Julia Baird [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.], Lennon’s sister — and contested by some who insist the film exaggerates, even turns overly melodramatic, the events of Lennon’s early life — Nowhere Boy is a startling bit of rock ’n’ roll psychotherapy. John (the charismatic Aaron Johnson: Kick-Ass, The Greatest) is an arrogant, cocky 15-year-old who’s “going nowhere,” his school headmaster tells him… but John considers himself a genius, for reasons unknown (although we know he’s right). He’s also a wistful, lonely kid, we see right off the bat — the film opens, cleverly, with him dreaming of something that’s like the yet-in-the-future opening of the film A Hard Day’s Night, running from pursuing girls offscreen yet also clearly hoping to be caught, too — though the film takes its leisurely time clueing us in to causes of John’s pain, if you’re not so much of a Beatles fan that you don’t already know. Which is just as it should be; John is slowly transformed here from something iconic and distant to a living, suffering, prickly person.
We meet a John who lives with his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas: Easy Virtue, The Other Boleyn Girl) and Uncle George (David Threlfall: Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Hot Fuzz), and he seems happy enough at first — certainly, he’s got a warm relationship with George — though Mimi is cold and distant, not terribly maternal, and appears able to shrug off even the most horrible tragedies, like the one that reduces John to a puddle of grief early on. Later, John is reintroduced to his own mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff: Notes on a Scandal, Doctor Zhivago), whom he hasn’t seen in years… though we get glimpses of the nightmares he has about, seemingly, the moment he was torn from her. Now, Julia represents the escape from Mimi John needs, and she’s very unlike her sister: an outrageous flirt, she’s weirdly inappropriately amorous with her own son, whom she calls “my dream” — the film hints that perhaps she was bipolar, prone to wild mood swings from exuberance to deep depression. But Julia’s the one who teaches him to play banjo, and introduces him to the magic of Elvis just at the moment when lonely John, starved for female affection from the one mother figure in his life and getting way more of it than he wants from the other one, starts to turn to girls his own age in an attempt to make up for that…
I gotta tell ya, songs like “Jealous Guy” suddenly make a lot more sense now.
Still, it all gets even more intriguing to learn that Nowhere Boy is the feature debut of British artist Sam Taylor-Wood… who is a female Sam, not a male Sam. There’s a creamy sensuousness to the film, which gazes adoringly at John throughout — Aaron Johnson is a very, very pretty young man — and the dynamic at play in the film between John and the older women in his life hits all the authentic emotional notes. It’s impossible not to wonder how much of that is true because of the fact that while making this film Taylor-Wood fell in love with the 20-year-old Johnson, 23 years her junior, and married him, and had a baby with him.
That’s taking one’s art very seriously indeed.