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Movie review: 'Nowhere Boy'

The feature film looks at John Lennon's tragedy-filled teen years and their effect on his artistic creativity.

October 08, 2010|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

There are so many ways in which "Nowhere Boy," an emotionally raw and yet raucous, rockin' riff on John Lennon's turbulent teenage years, is such an entertaining piece of nostalgia.

As we mark what would have been the seminal artist's 70th birthday Saturday, it takes us back to a time when rock 'n' roll was still finding its way and its warriors; before reality TV would begin minting rock stars like shiny new pennies and before Lennon or anyone else had any idea just how salient and strikingly original all those thoughts churning around in his young head would prove to be.

Lennon's is by now a much-examined life — still, most of the attention has been on his years with the Beatles, then as a solo artist and finally his murder at 40 and the unfinished musical legacy left behind. Instead, director Sam Taylor-Wood has concentrated her focus on a relatively obscure time beginning in 1955 when a series of personal losses, layered on top of typical 15-year-old rebellion, conspired to reshape a boy who, without those twists of fate, might have grown into an ordinary man.

This is Taylor-Wood's first full-length feature, a project she says she fought hard to get, and that passion is palpable in nearly every frame of this skillfully crafted musical mystery tour. Even so, she is hardly a novice, having spent years as an artist before her first narrative film, the impressive 2008 short "Love You More," screened in competition at Cannes. In "Nowhere Boy," that artistic eye is clearly at work, and there is a growing confidence that gives the film the swagger it needs to take on such an iconic figure, head unbowed.

The movie opens with John (Aaron Johnson) roughhousing with his beloved uncle George ( David Threlfall), who with John's tight prig of an aunt, Mimi ( Kristin Scott Thomas), took him in as a child and raised him as their own. Where George easily doles out affection and, as significantly, John's first musical instrument, a harmonica, Scott Thomas's Mimi has mastered the art of looking down her nose at the world and everyone in it as if they were giving off a slightly bad smell. For now, Lennon's mother is little more than random scraps of childhood memories.

George's fatal heart attack changes all that, reconnecting John with Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), the mother who deserted him, and setting up a tug of war between the estranged sisters that will forever shift his bearings and long influence his music. Where Mimi is a keep-the-windows-locked kind of influence in his life, Julia is a throw-them-open-and-let-the-sun-shine-in sort. She's also a fragile flower, beautifully and seductively played by Duff.

Julia takes John into her life, introducing him to the emerging underground sounds of blues, rock and Elvis; she will teach him to play the banjo. But it is Mimi who bends to buy him his first guitar, only to sell it when his grades falter. Meanwhile for us, it's moving and telling to watch Duff and Scott Thomas in pitch-perfect performances as the women who battle for John's heart and mind.

Their struggle would have no traction without a compelling presence in the center of the storm. In this the filmmakers got lucky with Johnson. He infuses his character with a winning blend of teenage uncertainty and cocksure charisma and manages to handle the singing and playing as if he were not doing it for the first time. That Johnson bears an uncanny resemblance to the singer-songwriter only helps. Yet it is a needle-threading task to evoke someone so deeply etched in the public consciousness without ever letting it drift into caricature, which the actor, who starred this year in the comic book farce "Kick-Ass," does exceptionally well.

The filmmaker, a protégé of the late Anthony Minghella to whom the film is dedicated, is helped greatly by screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh, who shows a real feel for the Liverpool scene, circa 1955, and an ear for the music that was beginning to shake, rattle and roll the world. Through cinematographer Seamus McGarvey's lens, John's teen years are framed by tidy suburban row houses with their clipped hedges and tree-lined streets where boys bike to school; the grittier urban sprawl of the city is kept at bay. There is a sort of wrapped-in-gauze quality that borders on surreal, which, considering everything that happened to Lennon, makes for an apt choice.

As Lennon takes shape in the film, so does the band that will eventually become the Beatles, and the movie captures most of these firsts: The initial group being formed over cigarettes in the boys bathroom at Quarry Bank High, which will give Lennon's first band, the Quarrymen, its name. His introduction to Paul McCartney, played as a thin boyish wisp of musical ardor by Thomas Brodie Sangster. George Harrison (Sam Bell) barely makes it onto the scene before the boys are off to Hamburg, Germany, with John promising to call Mimi every week so she won't worry, which he did until the week he died.

The film is careful in not overplaying its emotional punches. But when it comes to the tragedy of Julia's death, it's a scene designed to stun and sting as it must have back then. Not surprisingly, everywhere there is music, a melting pot of sounds running through the film, more that influenced John rather than ones he, Paul and George would later write: Jerry Lee Lewis, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly.

After seeing an early cut of the film, Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, let them use his recording of "Mother" over the end credits, and McCartney gave permission for an early song he wrote with Harrison, "In Spite of All the Danger," to be used at a pivotal point in the film when the band begins to coalesce. In doing so, they have given "Nowhere Boy" their blessing.

It's a nice touch, but the talented Taylor-Wood has created such a poignantly authentic telling of a life that the film stands just fine on its own.

betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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