He’s Leaving Home
by Benjamin Mercer
Dir. Sam Taylor-Wood, UK, The Weinstein Company
Nowhere Boy concerns the late adolescent years of John Lennon, his coming to rock and roll, and the formation of his first band, the Quarrymen, but it’s not so much a music film as a behind-the-music film, fashioning a handsome soap opera out of the iconic singer-songwriter’s biographical back catalog. The film, directed by British photographer and video artist Sam Taylor-Wood and adapted by Matt Greenlagh (Control) from a memoir by Julia Baird, finds the confused Lennon’s allegiance wavering between two maternal figures: his lively mother (Anne-Marie Duff), entering his life after a long and mysterious absence, and his stern aunt (Kristen Scott Thomas, stern as stern can be), who has raised him since he was five. Thankfully, unlike many other real-life-inspired rock-and-roll films, such as this year’s The Runaways, Nowhere Boy doesn’t seem compelled to make a case for the relevance of its subject. Thirty years after his death, in what would have been the year of his 70th birthday, Lennon continues to exert his enormous cultural influence: in addition to the stateside release of Nowhere Boy, the last couple months have seen the New York Film Festival premiere of a tribute documentary called LennonNYC and numerous book and CD reissues. Lennon also still makes national news: in September Mark David Chapman, his murderer, was denied parole for the sixth time.
Nobody once utters “the Beatles” in Nowhere Boy, though the Quarrymen—featuring Lennon, Paul McCartney (memorably depicted here by Thomas Brodie Sangster as a wise-beyond-his-years well of moving melodies, who asks for tea when he’s offered beer), and George Harrison—have changed their name by the end of the film, when Lennon (played by Aaron Johnson) bids farewell to his aunt and departs for Hamburg. This is a film that assiduously avoids tackling head-on the subject of Lennon’s musical legacy, offering instead a modest slice of biopic, visiting the school-cutting rebel as a death in the family tempers his world-beating, though never mean-spirited, confidence. The Lennon depicted here is a cheeky lad par excellence, prone to shoplifting records and joyriding on the roofs of buses, a hooligan whose excesses the film excuses out of hand with a rather ridiculous contrast: his aunt’s deadeningly studious biochemistry-student lodger, a young man who spends beautiful afternoons pruning hedges and scrutinizing textbooks. Taylor-Wood depicts Lennon’s exploits as merely symptoms of his hypersensitivity.
The film does, however, smartly integrate formative musical moments into the melodrama. A very early scene shows Lennon piping away at a harmonica, a gift from his beloved but soon-to-be-deceased Uncle George, a hopeless alcoholic. Julia, Lennon’s mother, a die-hard rock-and-roll fan who left him years ago in the care of her sister, possibly due to a sporadic mental illness that is never fully explained here (though the rest of the hard feelings over the child’s changing of hands get an airing in one living-room shouting match, marred by impressionistic flashbacks), teaches him to play the banjo while he’s suspended from school, hiding out from his widow aunt, Mimi; his aunt buys him a guitar in a rare moment of permissiveness, only to take it away when his report card displeases her. She sips decorously at a spoonful of soup as she informs her nephew of this confiscation. We are left to marvel at this push-and-pull that defines the presumptive Great Artist—between the redhead-with-curls who eagerly supplies the banjo, no matter the circumstance, and her prim sister, who considers access to the guitar a privilege, not a right.
While Nowhere Boy remains fixated on these three throughout, Taylor-Wood does manage to get at a more complicated, wider family dynamic. Though some characters here seem to serve no function other than to pay homage to the facts of the John Lennon story (Julia’s silent, nonentity daughters), there are some who contribute unexpected depth, most notably Julia’s reserved husband, Bobby (Red Riding Trilogy’s David Morrissey), perpetually uneasy about Lennon’s sudden reappearance in his family. But perhaps the movie’s boldest, most surprising stroke is to suggest a latent attraction between Lennon and his mother, an implication made most strongly during a sequence that begins with a shot of Lennon holding on for dear life to the armrest of a couch as his mother writhes on top of him, dancing along as they listen to their latest favorite song, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s “I Put a Spell on You.” The next cut takes us to a remote part of the local woods, where Lennon is in the process of fingering a female classmate; then we’re abruptly put in the principal’s office at Lennon’s school, where Lennon is spanked with a ruler for possessing a pornographic magazine. Later, when Julia becomes something of a wild-eyed groupie for the Quarrymen, there is also the suggestion of a sexual attraction cutting the other way. Her connection with young Paul—during a party she consoles him in the kitchen for having lost his own mother to cancer—sometimes seems more strictly maternal than her bond with her own long-estranged son.
While the film is admirably unconventional in the way it tackles the chaotic feelings and emotions of adolescence, its biggest drawback is an overriding slickness, especially jarring in a film that deals, at least tangentially, with rock and roll and the nervous energy of live performance. In a brief glimpse of their first junkyard-band show at a local fair, Taylor-Wood imagines the Quarrymen coming out of the gate sounding pristine and polished. The director visualizes Lennon’s first turns at the banjo by speeding up the domestic activity behind him, showing him plucking tentatively while everyone in the background moves along in blindingly fast motion; Lennon seems to emerge from this sequence a full-fledged musician. The film’s conclusion also feels underimagined: the last full scene tries to sum up a film’s worth of conflicted emotion as Aunt Mimi asks John whether she should put her information under “parent” or “guardian” on some official travel-abroad form; the music swells, and the moment feels thoroughly unearned.
There is likewise something amiss about Nowhere Boy’s depiction of Fifties Liverpool. The location is handsomely shot here by Seamus McGarvey, but it somehow feels like merely a collection of carefully arranged surfaces, never coming close to attaining the lived-in quality of Terence Davies’s swooning reminiscences of the city (an unavoidable, if not entirely fair, comparison). That flashy sped-up banjo-learning sequence suggests that Taylor-Wood sees the film’s domestic interiors as so many streamlined dioramas. Most authority figures seem to believe that “nowhere” is exactly where John Lennon is headed—he does as he wishes, casting his very insubordination as a grand, good-humored theatrical act (which Aaron Johnson conveys nicely). But “nowhere” also too often feels like where this uneven biopic takes place.