The opening shot of Sam Taylor-Wood’s John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy sets the scene in a moment of presaging exuberance as a then-anonymous teenage Lennon bolts from imaginary screaming fans on Liverpool’s streets and a plangent burst of sound echoes the seismic first chord of A Hard Day’s Night. As the film establishes the groundwork, skipping past Strawberry Fields or riding along with John atop the roof of a city double-decker, we see the mid-1950s bustle of Liverpool and the larger-than-life personality of the inevitable star in the making.
Nowhere Boy is an engaging and emotionally complex tale of how Lennon evolved in the tidy green suburbs, raised by his Aunt Mimi without knowing that his real mother only lives a short walk away, across some open paddocks but separated by generations of social conditioning against women who failed to adhere to conventional morality. By the end we see Lennon on the verge of adulthood, ready to take on and take over the world.
This is director Taylor-Wood’s first feature after a successful career as a photographer, highlights of which included intriguingly-staged pictures of frozen mid-air still-life settings. Her work on Nowhere Boy is commendably unpretentious – I’m sure the temptation as an expert in the visual medium would be to strive for artistic perfection in every shot, perhaps to the detriment of the storytelling. But unlike Jane Campion’s recent Bright Star (which I loved), in which every shot seemed to be artfully composed as a homage to one of the great romantic poets, Nowhere Boy seldom pauses for visual effect. In fact, only one scene comes to mind for its composition, when Taylor-Wood uses the width of the screen to capture a moment of drama, with John’s mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) bent double with grief in a dark hallway in the left distance paired with a close-up reaction shot of Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) in the right foreground.
Nowhere Boy attained more than the usual level of media interest accorded to a low-budget film due to the real-life romance between Taylor-Wood and her much younger lead actor, the 19 year-old Aaron Johnson. Indeed, she is now expecting his baby. Of course there’s a certain prurience in even repeating the gossip, and certainly if it brings them happiness then so be it. Cavilling doubts remain due to the age difference (Taylor-Wood is 42) and the fact that if a male director of her age was having a baby with his 19 year-old female lead actress it would hardly be a good look. Knowing of the romance, it does bring into question some of the scenes in which Julia, excited at finally rejoining her son’s life, smothers him with affectionate kisses, leading the cynical to ask if this is reverse-Oedipal cinema by proxy.
Johnson’s performance is commendable for such a young actor – he conveys both the wide-boy swagger and deep-seated insecurity of the young Lennon. But ultimately most attention will focus on the work of Scott Thomas and Duff as the two women in Lennon’s life – Mimi the stalwart, starchy guardian and Julia the wild spirit, eager to open John’s eyes to the possibilities of the vibrant new rock ‘n roll scene. Both actresses are uniformly excellent and at times you even wish the story could focus on them rather than John.
Although it is a smaller, supporting role, Thomas Sangster, the actor who plays the 15 year-old Paul McCartney, does a solid job. (He’s also appeared in Love Actually and Bright Star). Despite being the same age as Johnson he really does look like he’s still more child than adult, and makes an immediate impact in the famous scene where he busks a quick yet note-perfect version of Eddie Cochrane’s Twenty Flight Rock on his ‘upside-down guitar’ to a clearly impressed Lennon and his Quarrymen crew shortly after their famous Woolton parish fete debut on 6 July 1957. For Beatles fans this is one of several keynote set-pieces crucial to the genesis mythology of the band.
Soon we see Lennon and McCartney in guitar practice sessions at Aunt Mimi’s house, which are prefaced by Mimi’s call of “John, your little friend is here” when the talented young guest arrives. (Paul and John were the same height at the time). In the practice sessions we see Lennon realising that he had to work harder to master his guitar playing, else the proficient McCartney would eclipse him. Later we see the cocksure Lennon almost upstaged by an equally confident McCartney at a gig, with McCartney taking a stagefront microphone and obviously prepared to share the limelight rather than play wingman. It’s a wryly amusing scene, with Lennon becoming aware of the friendly rivalry that would later underpin their long and fruitful artistic collaboration. And in the final scenes when the Quarrymen cut their first record, the McCartney/Harrison ballad In Spite Of All The Danger with Lennon on lead vocals, we see the group just before it emerges from adolescence and heads for a quick lesson in fast living in the clubs of Hamburg.
Luckily for Beatles fans the story is continued in another film, the 1994 Iain Softley film Backbeat, which features Stephen Dorff in the lead role as one of the numerous contenders for the title ‘fifth Beatle’, Stuart Sutcliffe, and the dishy Sheryl Lee as his German artist muse, Astrid Kirchherr. The talented Ian Hart also impresses as Lennon, a role he had previously played on TV, and winning him the 1995 British Film Awards best newcomer award for the role. Softley later went on to direct bigger budget fare such as K-PAX and Inkheart.
The film depicts an admittedly fictionalised version of the Beatles’ Hamburg days of dodgy clubs, upper-popping and groupie-bagging, with a verve and liveliness that are compelling. Sure, the love triangle between Sutcliffe, Kirchherr and Lennon was made up, as were many of the other details of the film. But like Nowhere Boy, it’s still a film worth enjoying, not necessarily as a historical document but as an evocation of a lost age.
A key aspect of the success of Backbeat lies in its soundtrack, which is deployed in the gig scenes to good effect. Running the gamut of the Beatles’ early rock ‘n roll influences, and amped up as high as the band after another all-night on-stage marathon, the music features a cobbled-together crew of mid-90s American rockers (Dave Pirner, Greg Dulli, Thurston Moore, Don Fleming, Mike Mills and Dave Grohl) blasting out like a top quality covers band. Produced by Don Was, Pirner and Dulli’s rasping lead vocals and the insistent, frenetic pace perfectly capture the spirit of the anything’s-possible rock ‘n roll ethos that the Beatles perfected in their early days and deployed to conquer the entire world within a few scant years.
The Quarrymen at Woolton 06.07.57 (2x MP3s)