Is there a historical figure we know more about than John Lennon? True, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson kept meticulous notes and records of their lives, but they weren’t rock stars and frankly, founding a nation is hardly as interesting as having written “Imagine” or “Norwegian Wood.” And to use an example once offered by Lennon himself, we only “know” about a fraction of Jesus’ life, and nothing at all about his formative years.
It’s a daunting task to offer a new angle about Lennon’s life, to say the least. He exhaustively told us everything over the years, or at least what he wanted us to know. There have been earlier attempts to capture the early Beatles story, most notably Backbeat, which focused on Lennon’s relationship with Stu Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe is a character here, as are McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster) and Harrison (Sam Bell), but Nowhere Boy is firmly about the inner workings and burgeoning genius of the young John.
Based on a biography written by his half sister, Julia Baird, Nowhere Boy starts out with Lennon (Aaron Johnson) in his youth, pre-Beatles – even pre-Quarrymen. Like most teenagers, he has a chip on his shoulder the size of Blackpool (the bustling port town near Liverpool where, the film shows, Lennon discovered rock & roll). He smokes, gets in trouble at school and hates to wear his glasses despite his Aunt Mimi’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) chiding. It’s typical teenage stuff, certainly not the sign of any particular brilliance to come.
The source of Lennon’s rebellion becomes apparent when his cousin gives him the news he’s always wanted to know: his mother, Julia’s (Anne-Marie Duff), address. It sets him on a journey of self-discovery that he’ll be on until – but wait a second. We’ve heard “Mother” and “My Mummy’s Dead” and saw Beatles Anthology. Lennon’s mommy issues are almost the foundation of modern popular culture. We know all of this already, don’t we?
We do. But to read about it or see it in a documentary is one thing. To see it live and breathe and take shape, brought to life in full color, is something different. And that’s what first-time director Sam Taylor-Wood has pulled off here, thanks mostly to Johnson’s embodiment of Lennon. It’s almost inconceivable that this is the same kid who played the gawky nerd-cum-superhero in Kick-Ass a few months ago.
Less is known about Julia Lennon, and manic-depressives are hard to play without garnering eye rolls, but Duff nails her spirit spot-on. In her more manic moments, there is a natural ease with which she and Johnson play off each other, reaching beyond the mother-son vibe – and teetering dangerously close to Oedipal territory – to the master-muse relationship that would be so important for John and Paul and George going forward.
Plot is important, sure, but in a biopic where the subject’s story is practically taught in kindergarten, the portrayals are everything, and that’s what works best here. It’s hard to suspend the fact that you know who lives and who dies, but it’s a great estimation of what the teenage John Lennon might have been like: a mixed-up kid who is kind of a dick, kind of sweet, very rebellious, very emotional and about to change the world.