Amidst a resurgence of affection for The Beatles, London Film Festival closer Nowhere Boy marks a strong debut for Sam Taylor-Wood (a visual artist of some stature in the art world) and a breakout for Brit actor Aaron Johnson as teen John Lennon. But the small-scale 50s period film straddles two genres: musical biopic and family melodrama. The latter completely overwhelms the story.
It makes sense that The Weinstein Co. decided to skip a costly Oscar push and open the film in 2010.
Written by Matt Greenhalgh, who scripted the well-received Joy Division film Control, Nowhere Boy functions as an origin myth for the late Beatle. Remember the Lennon songs “Julia” and “Mother” (“You had me, but I never had you, I wanted you, but you didn’t want me”)? They were about Julia Stanley Lennon (Anne-Marie Duff) a woman who was so unstable that her sister Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) raised her son instead.
Bored at school in the 50s, Lennon loves his aunt Mimi and uncle George (David Threlfall) but chafes under Mimi’s discipline. At his uncle’s funeral, Lennon spots his mother and tracks her down. It turns out she lives with her boyfriend (David Morrissey) and two little girls nearby. The two Lennons hit it off; she loves rock and teaches him the banjo, but it’s Mimi who buys him his first guitar.
The movie tries to balance the start of Lennon’s music career and the divisive family drama that drives him crazy, as he is torn between the two sisters. We meet guitarists George and Paul (a too-geeky Thomas Sangster), who are both superior musicians, but John is a quick study.
The soundtrack is comprised of mostly covers throughout until the last song over the closing credits: Lennon’s solo-era lament, “Mother.” No Beatles classics. (UPDATE: The Playlist nails down more details.) Finally, I would have preferred less drama–and more music.
Here’s Lennon singing “Mother”: