John Lennon is undoubtedly the most iconic of The Beatles. Regarded widely (though perhaps not accurately) as one of the most important figures of the peace movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s, his mythic status was solidified by his murder in 1980. The truth is, he was a bit of a jerk. He did, after all, abandon his wife and child and did not speak to them for a few years (though Yoko Ono should not receive the blame for this, as she often unjustly has). But the man and the music should be separated, and while his music post-Beatles was arguably better, Lennon and McCartney together proved that the sum is often better than the parts. Photographer Sam Taylor-Wood, in her feature directorial debut Nowhere Boy, takes the audience back further, to Lennon’s teenage years, his discovery of music, first meeting with McCartney, and his tumultuous familial relations.
Taylor-Wood is not the first photographer to venture into film. Anton Corbijn documented the life of Joy Division member Ian Curtis in the sublime Control in 2007 (written by Matt Greenhalgh, who also penned Nowhere Boy). Corbijn successfully translated his skills from one medium to the next. Taylor-Wood directed the fantastic short Love You More in 2008, about two teenagers’ first sexual encounter to the tune of the Buzzcocks. Unfortunately, her first feature attempt is less successful. Nowhere Boy ends up being a rather play-by-play biopic, saved by good performances and a great soundtrack.
Lennon (played with aplomb by Aaron Johnson) was a child of early rock ‘n roll, influenced by the sounds coming out of America, influenced by roots music and country, such as Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. Taylor-Wood’s young Lennon was like most teenage boys: rude, lewd, and more interested in sex than school. Raised by his aunt (Kristen Scott-Thomas) and uncle, he encounters his mother (Ann-Marie Duff) for the first time since he was a baby at his uncle’s funeral, and develops a relationship with her despite the protests of his aunt. It is she who introduces him to rock ‘n roll and the guitar, and some slightly inappropriate mother-son contact. Nothing serious, but just enough to give the film a little dirt. Once he finds music, there is no stopping Lennon. He ropes his mates into forming a band, meets McCartney, goes back and forth in loyalty between his aunt and his mother, and eventually finds an equilibrium and sets off for Hamburg.
For a biopic to be good, or worthwhile, it needs to show its audience something it didn’t already know about its character, or dig deeper to go behind the icon to the person. (For example, Edward Norton was the second choice to play Andy Kaufman in Man in the Moon; he would have been a far better choice than Jim Carrey, as Carrey is really a comedian with a lack of depth to his acting (save for Eternal Sunshine). Johnson certainly takes to the role, and does not seem shy for playing such an iconic figure. This is Lennon long before the icon, a seemingly typical teenage boy with is own demons to fight and music to discover, and Johnson turns himself into that boy, battling it out between the introspective genius and the horny, charming teenager. These are the two sides caught between his mother and his aunt.
No actor can convey emotion through complete stillness and a straight face like Scott-Thomas, and though she might be pushing the posh a bit too much for her character Aunt Mimi, she steals the film through the character’s steely determination not to see Lennon brought down by his mother. Duff’s Julia has psychological problems that in today’s world would be recognized and helped; in the 1950s, though, she is seen as a crazy whore. This trio and their tenuous bonds are at the heart of the film; by focusing on them, Taylor-Wood finds perhaps the secret to Lennon’s greatness as a songwriter: that combination of the wild sexuality of rock music, in sync with tempered control. Johnson, Scott-Thomas and Duff each hold their own and, like Lennon and McCartney, together becoming stronger than the parts.
The direction, though, feels predictable. The story gives surprises that don’t feel surprising. We are introduced to Lennon and his life, a tragedy happens that changes the course of his life, problems arise, and eventually resolved. The film follows the classical Hollywood narrative, with little to deviate from its course of getting Lennon to Hamburg. We might learn things about Lennon we didn’t know before, but perhaps this is the problem of directing a film about someone whose life has been so heavily documented. Even the new information doesn’t feel new. Since the same screenwriter is responsible for this film and Control, it shows the difference a director with a more imaginative approach to the medium is capable of, and one who goes by the book. Taylor-Wood falls into the latter category.
Did I learn more about Lennon? Certainly. Did it change the way I think about his music? Somewhat: the influences are not surprising, but the subsequent execution is unique. As a story, it’s interesting and well-acted. As a film, it doesn’t create anything new.