Nowhere Boy (2009)

When it’s on: Monday, 9 July (9.00 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

It’s strange how changing contemporary public perceptions of someone feed directly into their on-screen personas. Despite the different casts and 15 years that separate Nowhere Boy and Backbeat, the latter could almost be a sequel to the 2009 entry, picking up the formative Beatles’ story from the beginning of the Hamburg episode. Only the characters of Paul McCartney and John Lennon are so different in the two films. ‘Macca’ has every right to feel ill-served over his portrayal in Backbeat as the cold-hearted, business mastermind behind the band who’ll let nothing stand in his path to world domination. As played by Thomas Sangster in Nowhere Boy, he comes across altogether more generously as an enthusiastic and talented lad, the glue that holds the emerging beat combo together whilst freewheeling John Lennon works out his personal demons. Sangster looks (and sounds) nothing like McCartney, incidentally, but if they ever get around to making that biopic of Aztec Camera frontman, Roddy Frame…

As for John Winston Lennon, the soulful poet of Backbeat (played beautifully by Ian Hart, who pretty much nailed it) is little in evidence in Nowhere Boy, which covers the difficult growing up he experienced as the group of lads that would eventually form the Beatles assembled almost organically in the background. Lennon is played by Aaron Johnson as an impetuous teenage rebel, stifled at home by his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas), particularly once Uncle George (David Threlfall) buys it and the unlikely pair are pushed closer together. At George’s funeral, John comes across Mimi’s sister and his biological mother, Julia (Ann-Marie Duff), and sparks a renewed relationship with her. At first, getting to know his mum is brilliant for John. She possesses the sense of fun and spontaneity that seems utterly lacking in his dour Aunt and she even begins to teach him how to play the guitar and learn his favourite skiffle tracks. But there are hints of trouble from the start. At best, Julia’s flighty and at times an outright flirt, and her husband (David Morrissey) has the worried look of someone who’s seen this behaviour in her before and knows where it might lead. 

The free-spirited Julia quickly pulls John’s affections away from Aunt Mimi. He moves out, moves back in, argues with her and rails constantly against her staid homestead, whilst her emotions are kept in check behind a cloud of the cigarettes she is rarely seen without. Over the course of the film, John learns why he has lived with her rather than his mother since the age of five, and it isn’t a happy resolution. The title becomes apt as his tangled family life pulls him in all directions and feeds ultimately into the spirit behind his music.

Refreshingly, the script calls for a spiteful and angry young Lennon. Like Sangster, Johnson looks little like his famous character, but he captures all too well Lennon’s biting wit and capacity for nastiness, especially in his dealings with the opposite sex. Nowhere Boy belongs, however, to the pair of ladies in his life, the emotionally immature Julia and prim, sensible Aunt Mimi. Both are excellent, though Scott-Thomas walks away with it, all the pain in her character’s back story revealed in her eyes whilst the face remains a mask and her voice gives nothing away.

Fine artist Sam Taylor-Wood made her feature film directing debut with Nowhere Boy and, for good measure, sparked a relationship with her young star, Johnson, the pair getting married in June 2012. Whilst the film might not get all of its facts straight, it certainly looks the part, shooting on location in Liverpool and Blackpool and hitting the right notes in recreating a late-fifties vibe. Some of the detail is staggeringly good, such as Aunt Mimi’s house, a dead ringer for 251 Menlove Avenue, Woolton, the suburban semi that has since become a shrine and locked in the period when he actually lived there. The music, which played such a formative role in Lennon’s upbringing, is fantastic and scatters clues throughout in suggesting the directions he would take with his own compositions.

The film’s best shot may be its first. Johnson charges exultantly along the pillars of St George’s Hall, pursued by imaginary, screaming fans, as the instantly familiar first chord of A Hard Day’s Night plays. It’s a sign of the things to come, and the film does a lovely job of teasing out those signs of the mature John Lennon in his difficult teenage years.

Nowhere Boy: ***

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