I Am The Baby Seal Jesus.
It helps if you read this review with a nasal British accent. Bonus points for having a big cartoon nose.
John Lennon’s high school principal tells him, “You’re going nowhere, son.” At that point, you’re meant to slap your thigh and exclaim “Hah! Little did he know!” Do you feel dirty yet?
A mixture of myth and melodrama, NOWHERE BOY follows teen John (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) from his troubled youth in 1950s Liverpool, juggling school, sex and two sets of parents (blood and foster), up to the point he leaves for Germany with a new band that we never hear named. And that’s the strange dichotomy in this biopic about the founding member of The Beatles:
We know going in that this is the story of a young man who would be in a band “bigger than Jesus,” yet the filmmakers keep the elbow-nudges so subtle that they may as well not be pertinent at all; musically, besides the opening chord to A Hard Day’s Night, we don’t hear any Beatles soundtrack, even the word ‘Beatles’ is never mentioned. Yet they want us to care about this rowdy boy raised by two lonely women battling for his affections – but if this boy weren’t John Lennon, would we care? Because every one of us has a sob story to tell. Just because he’s The Walrus, does it mean his origin tale is any more compelling than ours? Going to such lengths to AVOID Beatles allusions, isn’t the film nothing more than a glorified soap opera?
It’s touted as the birth of the Beatles, but it’s not. Because there are no threads or foreshadowing of what these lads might become. It’s more a chronicle of one boy’s artist-rebel psyche. And again, if the boy wasn’t Lennon – would we care?
Soaping the two sides of this emotional story of betrayal, selfishness and repentance are John’s conservative, widowed, responsible Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) and his irresponsible, flighty mother Julia (played with red-headed spryness by Anne-Marie Duff). From a memoir by Lennon’s half-sister, Julia Baird, director Sam Taylor-Wood and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh might be trying to tell us that John got his rock from Mimi and his roll from Julia.
We meet Lennon as a fresh-faced (yet not altogether innocent) teen, living with Mimi and Uncle George (David Threlfal, who was James Cromwell in a previous life). After the death of George (who was more like a “best mate” to John than an authority figure, as Mimi was), teen John seeks out his birth mother.
Enter Julia, a free spirit (who these days would be called trailer trash); flirtatious, profligate, alcoholic, who gave up John in his infancy to Mimi because she knew she was too irresponsible to raise him. She treats John almost as a girlfriend would and her sensual forwardness is Oedipally uncomfortable. She introduces John to rock and roll (frankly telling him “rock and roll means sex”) and teaches him banjo. Later, an effete young lad would teach John guitar; his name was Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie-Sangster – okay, now I’m officially sick of the hyphenated names!).
The two women would battle for John’s affections, Mimi feeling she earned the right to them by raising him, and Julia feeling her maternity guaranteed her right.
Then there is John’s fledgling friendship with Pete Shotton (Josh Bolt) – a name that the under-20s might not recognize as Lennon’s first partner in crime/bandmate; we see Lennon’s first band, The Quarrymen, playing atop a flatbed truck (sound quality is too good for an open air crapfest, but we let that slide); we eventually see the seminal incarnation of George, John and Paul, but we never do meet Ringo, and the movie ends with John telling Aunt Mimi that he is leaving for Hamburg “with that new group.” Mimi asks, “What’s it called?” John jokes, “Do you care?” Oh – so close!
Movie’s title is misleading; though Lennon wrote Nowhere Man later in life, he was not a “Nowhere Boy.” Title is obviously referring to his displacement amongst two mothers, and though that might have been psychically damaging, Lennon is not portrayed as a rudderless, antisocial miscreant, but as someone who knew what he wanted and ambitiously sought it. (Young Elvis on TV was a major inspiration, at one point, John lamenting, “Why couldn’t God make ME Elvis?!” Julia replies, “Because he was saving you for John Lennon!” And I slapped my thigh and felt dirty again.) Of course, fame is where luck and effort and right-place-right-time collide (and the leap from flatbed truck to Hamburg definitely warrants a Python-esque “Scene Missing” title card), but to sustain that momentum, you can’t possibly be a “nowhere boy” no matter how nice of a title it may seem.
We are left with the impression that now all Lennon needs is a big-nosed drummer whose jokes outweigh his talent, a Kaiserkeller and some tight trousers – and he’ll be well on his way to Eggman Jesus.