It seems to be difficult to tell the Beatles story on film. Witness the recent “Lennon Naked,” which was one-dimensional, weak and eminently forgettable.
But “Nowhere Boy,” which finally opens Friday in the U.S., is different. It’s a complex, tough and riveting portrait of a young John Lennon and his life leading into the Beatles.
John, portrayed excellently by Aaron Johnson, starts out somewhat isolated living with a strict Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and a kind uncle (David Threlfall). His philosophy about life, however, pushes the envelope. It’s no coincidence that one of the earliest moments in the film has Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Wild Child” playing over Johnson’s Lennon.
The uncle’s sudden death brings his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) into his life. At first, the two act like a young couple, dancing and having fun. Julia, so happy to have him in his life, almost treats John like a new boyfriend. “You’re my dream,” she says to him during his first visit.
Julia is also the spark, the movie says, that propelled him into rock ‘n’ roll, though his Uncle George, married to his Aunt Mimi, with whom he lived, certainly helped with a present of a harmonica.
John’s interest in music leads to him forming the Quarrymen with his friends. When a friend introduces him to a lad named Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster), it all starts to come together. The scenes of the Quarrymen’s first recording session and the church event that brought Lennon and McCartney together are among the most exciting in the film.
Johnson’s portrayal of Lennon is much like a teenage version of him in “A Hard Day’s Night” — smart alecky and exceptionally irreverent, but with a rawer edge. Kristin Scott Thomas is tough and strict as Mimi.
As with all films, “Nowhere Boy” takes dramatic liberties in its interpretations of the story. Julia Baird, on whose book “The Private John Lennon: The Untold Story From His Sister” the film was originally based, has publicly expressed her displeasure at the inaccurate way her family is portrayed. Paul McCartney has also criticized his portrayal in the film. (See our earlier story.)
“Nowhere Boy” is full of Liverpool scenery that gives it an air of authenticity. The film, directed by Sam Taylor-Wood and scripted by Matt Greenhalgh, even includes a view of Lennon’s real boyhood photo. The film’s interpretations of Beatle history will certainly cause discussion, but probably not as much as the portrayal of the Lennon family and the events that formulated John’s early life, along with its emotional climax. (The movie’s soundtrack is in itself a great collection of the roots of the Beatles, highlighted by an alternate version of John Lennon’s “Mother” that ends the film.)
Still, “Nowhere Boy” is worth seeing for the atmosphere that helped bring about the Beatles. Keep in mind, though, it’s hardly a documentary.
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