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Nowhere Boy


GEMMA DE CRUZ:  There's a scene in Nowhere Boy, possibly the pivotal scene, where a three way argument takes place between John Lennon, his mum and his aunt.  This is reminiscent of a ten-minute film that Sam Taylor-Wood made in 1996, Travesty of a Mockery in which a couple have a heated argument across two separate scenes. The argument in Nowhere Boy has been brewing since the start of the film and it's here that director Sam Taylor-Wood really pulls it all together.  

I approached Nowhere Boy expecting to be disappointed, artist-turned-feature filmmaker, even ‘film’-artists turned feature filmmaker: when does that work?  Admittedly, Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat was pretty good, but it rarely works. Saying that, one thing about Sam Taylor-Wood’s ‘artists’, films they were/are always very beautiful to look at.  Nowhere Boy is, in a way, the perfect story for Taylor-Wood; her films often address suppressed, or the release of, pent-up emotions and tensions or connections in relationships between people that are explained purely through images.

Nowhere Boy is based on the ‘early years’ of John Lennon, played by 19-year-old Aaron Johnson. We all know he’s going to be compared to Ian Hart (who’s played Lennon brilliantly, twice, in Backbeat and The Hours and Times) but, rather than try and compete, Johnson comes up with his own interpretation. He’s cocky, irreverent, angsty and tortured but also conveys an underlying sadness.  When John Lennon is just four years old his parents ask him to choose which of them he wants to live with unable to work it out he ends up being taken in, and raised by his aunt Mimi.  The film revolves around what happens when as a teenager, he reconnects with his mum – Julia.  It’s a kind of reversal of the usual ‘hate your mum, love your aunty’ syndrome.  Aunt Mimi is a stoical, strict, stiff-upper-lip type, while flirty Julia spins records, teaches John to play the banjo and encourages him to skive off school. Things come to a head when John wants to live with Julia permanently and everything blows up between the three of them.

The great thing about this film is that it doesn’t try to be ‘about the Beatles’ or milk any of that story. There are a few romantic touches such as the camera lingering on Strawberry Fields, or the moment when John Lennon first meets Paul McCartney, overcoming his competitive rivalry to let him join the band, knowing he’s got something to offer.  There’s also the a scene when the two ‘boys’ discuss songwriting, calling it “putting words with music”. It should be cheesy, but somehow it isn’t, mainly because Johnson doesn’t fall into the trap of portraying the character as a moody, introverted poetry-reading/writing loner. So, when he says to Paul that he “writes stuff’” it’s the first mention of it and the first hint of his creativity beyond playing rock’n’roll covers. There’s some wry hindsight comedy moments when Lennon’s teachers pronounce him a failure.  Likewise just before he leaves for Hamburg John drops in to see Mimi who casually declares “They all sound the same to me” when she asks him the name of the new band he’s joined. But, we all know the answer, and the rest is history.

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