Thursday, April 21, 2011

Nowhere Boy

Okay, I admit it.  I am a huge Beatles fan.  Seriously, it's ridiculous.  Being a fairly eccentric indie rock fan, I sometimes get a little crap from my buddies when I list the Beatles as my favorite group, but what can I do?  They were just so good!  I have every album, know almost every song by heart, have read books about the band...I have a genuine overload of Beatle information.  In fact, I am such a fan that I cannot stand hearing others play their songs.  Call me a purist, but Beatles covers make me grind my teeth on a good day; on a bad day, I leave bodies in my wake.  Needless to say, I've avoided watching Across the Universe, if only for the health of my loved ones.  Nowhere Boy is a little different.  It chronicles a chapter in the early (pre-Beatles) life of John Lennon.  I'm not usually a fan of biopics, especially for historical figures I am familiar with, but this is an interesting concept.  Can a complete story be told about a boy that would soon become a superstar?

John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) is living with his kinda stuck-up Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her fun-loving (AKA mostly drunk) husband, George (David Threlfall), when George suddenly dies.  At George's funeral, John notices Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), his mother in attendance.  That tragedy serves as a gateway to John's artistic birth.  He meets and befriends the mother that abandoned him, rebels against the only woman who raised him, and begins to dabble in the nascent art of rock and roll.  And that's it.  This is the story of John meeting Julia after being raised without her, and how that shaped him on his way to fame.

Like I mentioned before, I hate Beatles covers.  Thank goodness this movie focuses accurately on the songs that John sang and wrote in this time period.  Yes, there are some familiar songs for casual fans ("Maggie Mae," one of the worst tracks from Let It Be), but the rest of the soundtrack is either vintage 1950s rock or Beatles Anthology 1 early tracks.  I can live with that.  Actually, I really like the first generation of rock music, so this soundtrack is pretty hep by my standards.
Why is the kid from Love Actually teaching Buddy Holly the guitar?

But enough with the music.  What about the acting?  Aaron Johnson does a surprisingly good job of emulating John Lennon.  This isn't an impression, like in so many other biopics (Jamie Foxx, I'm looking at you), but a performance that clearly took a few cues from Lennon's habits and based a performance off them.  Johnson doesn't really look or sound all that much like Lennon, but I think that make shis performance seem more natural and less forced; besides, he totally captures the spirit of the man, from his oftentimes dick-ish behavior to the way he formed questions-that-aren't-really-questions.  Since this is the story of John Lennon, Johnson obviously carries the majority of the film's dramatic weight, but his supporting cast is pretty good.  Kristin Scott Thomas manages to convey guarded affection and traditional British properness.  Anne-Marie Duff was a little unsettling in her portrayal of Julia, indicating that she was both a free spirit and (probably) a manic-depressive; I am still a little weirded out by how sexually tempting she was shown to be around teenage boys, but I don't know enough facts to cry foul, so I'll just leave it at weird.  I thought David Morrissey did a good job as John's not-quite step-father; he managed to indicate concern for his family without being outright hostile with the young John.  I was particularly impressed by Thomas Sangster's performance as Paul McCartney; it's always nice to see a small but powerful role underplayed.

This is the first film directed by conceptual artist Sam Taylor-Wood, and she did a pretty good job.  I thought the actors were all handled well, with only a few moments leaning toward overacting (but at least they were the appropriate moments).  I loved how the soundtrack fit in with the film.  Aside from that, the movie was pretty standard, as far as direction and visuals go.  A lot of the credit for the movie should go to Matt Greenhalgh's tight script; he managed to include significant character development in both emotional and visual terms, which isn't always easily done.

Now, you might wonder how historically accurate Nowhere Boy is.  After all, it is a biopic, right?  The answer is...pretty accurate, which is damn good for a movie.  As far as I can tell, from my hours of reading as a teenager and the two minutes of internet research I conducted today, the only crime this film commits is by seriously condensing the timeline of the movie.  In real life, these events took place over seven years, but the film makes it feel like less than two years.  Still, the basic characters and their flaws are included, so I don't really mind.

There was some minor controversy surrounding this movie at its release, but it had nothing to do with the film itself.  Aaron Johnson and his director, Sam Taylor-Wood, got pregnant and engaged shortly after the movie finished filming.  What's the big deal?  He's 23 years younger than her, which is against the natural order of things (right, Jack Nicholson?).
When did Demi Moore dye her hair?
As for the movie itself, I actually liked it, despite my personal inclinations to hate anything Beatle-related that happened after 1970.  What does that mean for the average (non-Beatle-psycho) person?  This is an interesting drama with some good performances, and it provides some insight onto one of the 20th century's most famous people.  I won't argue that the story arc is totally satisfying, or that the movie is full of nuance or powerhouse performances, but I liked it.


  1. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson received a BAFTA nomination for her strong feature-film debut. Nowhere Boy boasts strong performances and a great story.

  2. It's not a bad debut, but I would hope that a visual artist would be more showy in the film genre. I will agree that Taylor-Wood (now -Johnson) had an impressive connection with her cast, which bolstered the performances.

    Honestly, I was just worried that my extreme BeatleMania would lead me to hate this pretender, but it was surprisingly (luckily, blissfully) engaging.

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