You wouldn't expect a film about the young John Lennon to be a full-blown, Douglas Sirk-style weepie but that is what Sam Taylor-Wood delivers in her remarkably assured debut feature, Nowhere Boy – the closing film at the London Film Festival. Her achievement is to have made an emotionally charged family melodrama without blunting the edge and sarcasm that inevitably come when Lennon is your subject.
Helped by a probing, perceptive screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh (who also wrote the Joy Division film Control), Taylor-Wood shows how closely Lennon's emergence as a musician was related to his intense but very vexed relationship with his mother.
The teenage Lennon (Aaron Johnson) first seen here is a relatively diffident figure. He is living with his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Uncle George (David Threlfall). He hasn't yet discovered Elvis. Events combine to push him toward rock and roll: the gift of a harmonica, a family death, his innate rebelliousness and his re-establishment of the relationship with his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) who left him when he was five years old.
Lennon's metamorphosis from uncertain teenager to young rocker is portrayed in an enjoyable, if predictable way. We see him quiff up and begin to dress like James Dean. The music used on the soundtrack changes with him. One moment, we're listening to a cosy song like "Mr Sandman". The next it's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and Screaming Jay Hawkins. Lennon's repartee begins to improve too. "Your sarcasm worries me," his aunt chides him. "Not up to your high standards?" is his instant, cheeky reply. He forms his band the Quarrymen. Future Beatles are soon spotted. A little tyke version of Paul McCartney (appealingly played by Thomas Brodie Sangster) turns up, playing the guitar left-handed and asking for a cup of tea. George Harrsion (Sam Bell) is first seen on top of a bus, showing off his guitar ability to Lennon.
There have been many other feature films and documentaries about the early days of The Beatles and the birth of rock and roll in Britain. This isn't really the subject of Nowhere Boy. The key figure is Lennon's mother. She is attractive and free-spirited but a tragic figure too. Anne-Marie Duff brings an extraordinary vitality and nervous energy to the role. There is an uncomfortable oedipal dimension to his relationship with her. He is besotted by her but very aware that she abandoned him and may do so again.
While she represents chaos and hedonism, Aunt Mimi (played in severe but ultimately very affecting fashion by Scott Thomas) stands for discipline and a ferocious single-mindedness. Lennon is caught between these two very different sisters. As Lennon, Johnson is able to convey defiance, egotism and his vulnerability.
The director may be a "Young British Artist" but Nowhere Boy is relatively conventional film-making. Outside one or two flashbacks and dream sequences, expressionistic flourishes are kept to a minimum. Even so, this is clearly a personal project for Taylor-Wood, who like Lennon had to cope with parental abandonment.
Nowhere Boy has just about enough music and biographical detail to appeal to Lennon and Beatles fans but it's far more intimate than the typical rock star biopic. By the time Lennon's raw and plaintive ballad "Mother" plays over the credits, audiences will be hard-pressed not to reach for the tissues.
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