Music is best part of biopic 'Nowhere Boy'

Aaron Johnson as young John Lennon and Anne-Marie Duff as Julia Lennon in 'Nowhere Boy.'

Photo by Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Aaron Johnson as young John Lennon and Anne-Marie Duff as Julia Lennon in "Nowhere Boy."

Is it any wonder John Lennon became a rock-and-roller? According to "Nowhere Boy," a biopic about the future Beatle's tumultuous teen years, rockin' was in his genes, not to mention his mother's tight blue jeans: Julia Lennon (Anne-Marie Duff) is presented as a flirty party girl who not only owned a copy of the Sun Records single "Rocket 88" but could sing along to the Memphis-made, so-called "first rock and roll song."

John Lennon's childhood. Liverpool 1955: a smart and troubled 15-year-old is hungry for experience. In a family full of secrets, two incredible women clash over ...

Rating: R for language and a scene of sexuality

Length: 97 minutes

Released: October 8, 2010 Limited

Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Aaron Johnson, Thomas Sangster, Anne-Marie Duff, David Threlfall

Director: Sam Taylor Wood

Writer: Julia Baird, Matt Greenhalgh

More info and showtimes »

"Nowhere Boy" is set mostly in Liverpool, but Memphis seems a more influential presence than London. Young George Harrison (Sam Bell) auditions for Lennon's band by picking out the Bill Justis instrumental "Raunchy" on his guitar, while the soundtrack includes local legend Eddie Bond's 1956 regional hit, "Rockin' Daddy (from Ding Dong Tennessee)."

Needless to say, the King is more important to these kids than the queen. Lennon (Aaron Johnson) adopts a rockabilly hairdo and a Presley swagger after seeing newsreel footage of Elvis driving girls crazy at his 1956 Tupelo "homecoming" concert. "Why couldn't God make me Elvis?" he moans to his mother. Replies Julia: " 'Cause he was saving you for John Lennon."

Unfortunately, one trouble with "Nowhere Boy" is that this young, smart-mouthed, emotionally troubled John Lennon fellow -- although ably played by Johnson -- seems as likely to become Peter Noone or Gerry Marsden as the second coming of Elvis.

Lennon listens to the BBC's "The Goon Show," draws cartoons, and is unfailingly quick-witted; when a school headmaster tells him he's going "nowhere," he responds: "There's nowhere for the geniuses, sir, so then I really do belong there." But Matt Greenhalgh's script (adapted from a memoir by Lennon's younger half-sister, Julia Baird) and Sam Taylor-Wood's direction are so conventional, in biopic terms, that young John never seems particularly remarkable, despite the fact that Johnson is movie-star handsome. (Thomas Brodie Sangster, who plays 15-year-old Paul McCartney, looks like a movie star, too -- DJ Qualls, as painted by Margaret Keane. The casting seems designed to make Lennon seem more impressive, even if young Paul does immediately school the skeptical older boy with a finger-picked performance of Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock.")

Maybe the teen Lennon's "ordinariness" -- the hopeful idea that greatness can emerge from drabness and sadness -- is the movie's point. "Nowhere Boy" more accurately might have been titled "John & Julia & Mimi." The movie is structured more or less as a Liverpool love triangle, with Lennon torn between his need for the love of his long-absent, irresponsible and perhaps mentally unstable mother and his less fervid love for his stolid, respectable, maternal aunt, Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), who is perhaps his "true" parent, having raised him since he was 5. "Glasses, John," Mimi advises, each time her self-conscious but myopic nephew leaves the house bare-faced.

Despite the good work of the actors, the audience is likely to be more interested in Lennon's fledgling musical career than in the Lennon family's turmoil. The movie is most entertaining when it focuses on music, from John's first banjo lesson with Julia ("Think Bo Diddley," she advises) to the debut of his skiffle band, The Quarrymen, which performs "Maggie May," a song recycled on the Beatles' "Let It Be" album.

The film is coy about its protagonist's future: The B-word is never mentioned, and the movie -- which ends before Lennon and his mates become stars -- makes a cute joke about Mimi's inability to remember the new band's unusual name.

Although the raffish Lennon is shown to be fairly irresistible to girls, the movie's sexual tension is between Julia and John, who is essentially an adult by the time he re-encounters his mother. (At 40, Duff is close to Julia's age at the time, but she looks younger.) The film doesn't really follow through on this notion, but it must have been on the minds of the cast and crew: In real life, conceptual artist-turned-director Sam (for Samantha) Taylor-Wood, now 43, and star Aaron Johnson, now 20, began a romantic relationship. They now have a 4-month-old son, and are engaged to be married.

"Nowhere Boy" is at Malco's Ridgeway Four.

-- John Beifuss, 529-2394

© 2010 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.