There have been a veritable slew of films about the life of John Lennon - from early career band biopics like Backbeat, to about a dozen or so documentaries of all shapes and sizes, to a VH-1 produced what if scenario involving John and Paul frolicking together in NYC in the Spring of 1976 contemplating if they should take Lorne Michaels up on his $3,000 iconic offer, to the inevitable Mark David Chapman antagonized tragedies - but this one takes the proverbial cake for coming in the earliest in the famed Lennon chronology. Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood and starring Aaron Johnson in the lead role, Nowhere Boy peers into Lennon's life as he goes from the dubious ages of fifteen to sixteen, and in doing so finds the mother who had abandoned him when he was but a toddler, to be raised by his aunt Mimi, and meets a couple of lads named Paul and George (Ringo would come later for those unacquainted with the history) who would go on to help him form a band of some renown.
The fact that the name of that particular band is never mentioned in Nowhere Boy (they are still the Quarrymen throughout the film - again, for those not acquainted with such things) is tantamount to this film being more unique in the telling of Lennon lore than most. Taylor-Wood begins her tale with the tragedy of Lennon's uncle dying, and thus he and his aunt left on their own in that sleepy hamlet of Liverpool and ends it on the high note of Lennon and his bandmates heading off to Hamburg to begin their meteoric rise to uber-super-stardom and eventual iconic status. Of course even such a high note ending as this is twinged with tragedy as well, as we all know how the story will truly end for our intrepid subject twenty four years later outside the Dakota. In fact, even through the good times in the film - structured much like a typical coming-of-age story with it's roller coaster of emotional mile markers, but with an underlying bubbling of genius (musical and non-musical alike) ready to burst out from the cracks - tragedy, as its subject matter's life sadly requires, seems to loom around each and every corner, just waiting to strike.
As for Aaron Johnson, who is semi-recognizable as being the lead in the not-totally off-putting graphic novel adaptation Kick-Ass (here back to his natural English accent) and as the film was beginning its opening stages of the festival circuit, is the nineteen year old expectant father of his forty-three year old director's baby (for those who dabble in tabloid talk) - although he is certainly no dead ringer for the iconic titular nowhere boy, his performance does hand in some wonderful moments where one can realistically see the boy genius coming up to the surface - moments that tend to shock in their apparent insynchronicity with the rest of the film (the young McCartney fluttering his eyes in the most insipid portrayal of that particular icon yet, ), but moments that leave in indelible mark nonetheless. Yet no matter how many of these moments there are, the movie is stolen time and time again by the two women in Lennon's young life - his stoic yet loving aunt Mimi and his suddenly appearing wildcat mother Julia. Kristen Scott Thomas, as John's long-suffering aunt is as sternly resilient as always, but is the remarkably volatile Anne-Marie Duff as the wayward mother who ultimately steals the proverbial show from everyone involved.
A tragic heroine of sorts (the film is based on a book by John's half-sister and Julia's daughter), Julia Lennon is portrayed here as a severely emotionally-mistaken human being (bipolar before bipolar was "cool") that shoots in and out of her teenage son's life like an almost foreshadowing spray of bullets. More than edging toward a strangely erotic incestuous relationship between estranged mother and son, the film takes on a rather creepy aspect when showing the interactions of these two characters - the need for physical contact by mother and the bewildered naivety of son. Yet it is in these very scenes that we find the true guts of Taylor-Wood's biopic-cum-coming-of-age story. His aunt Mimi may be the proverbial heart of the film (onscreen just as she was in life - tragically outliving her nephew by several years) but it is his mother who is the (again) tragic belly of the film - figuratively hitting her son in the emotional gullet over and over again in her need to be loved, and thus in unwittingly abusing his own need to be loved.
In the end though, it is simply John Lennon. Closing with the vision of Johnson's Lennon walking into the proverbial sunset, followed by images of the real Lennon and his family, friends and bandmates (from that aforementioned band of some renown) as the credits prepare to roll. A sad tale indeed, especially considering we know what will come later for our hero, but one of the better ones that have been told so far. [11/19/10]