Life Before Fame

There’s an emotional charge watching a biographical drama and knowing where the road a character is on will take him. But the triangle at the heart of the 2009 film Nowhere Boy – with a young John Lennon, his mother Julia, and his Aunt Mimi – doesn’t need to rely on Lennon’s future fame as a member of the Beatles for its drama.

The British biopic is one of the many DVDs available at the Whitehorse Library.

John is 15 years old when Nowhere Boy begins. He’s rebellious at school and shares an affectionate bond with his uncle and an uneasy one with his critical Aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas), who have raised him in the absence of his parents.

When kind Uncle George dies suddenly, John becomes more openly curious about his missing mother and tracks Julia down to a house within walking distance of Mimi’s, where Julia lives with her common-law partner and their two daughters.

John is smitten with his unconventional mother (Anne Marie Duff), whose expressive nature contrasts sharply with her more reserved sister. Julia teaches him to play the banjo and nurtures his growing passion for rock ‘n’ roll.

But the reunion between mother and son is ultimately less than idyllic and John turns to music with more intensity. He starts The Quarrymen with a few schoolmates, and soon Paul and George enter his orbit.

Challenged with telling a story about characters deeply entrenched in popular consciousness, screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh avoids easy references that pander to a Beatles fan.

“You don’t need to know everything to understand everything,” director Sam Taylor-Wood said in a 2010 interview in Vanity Fair, and accordingly there’s no big yeah, yeah, yeah moments.

Still, iconic images are meticulously recreated, such as The Quarrymen performing at a local fete the day Lennon met McCartney, where they hunched over their guitars and begin their musical partnership. The Quarrymen’s stage performances are especially enthralling.

Except for Anne-Marie Duff as Julia, none of the lead actors bear a striking resemblance to the real-life characters they portray, but that doesn’t hinder the authenticity of the performances.

As Aunt Mimi, Kristen Scott Thomas is appropriately imperious and sardonic, but manages to imply the intense affection she feels for John.

A favourite scene for me has John and Mimi joining forces in a local music store to negotiate the price of his first guitar.

Duff’s Julia is both charismatic and fragile, and Thomas Sangster as Paul McCartney is a wise, perceptive figure.

Aaron Johnson, who was only 18 years old at the time, anchors the film with a moving, confident portrayal of John Lennon, a young artist discovering he can channel emotional confusion into creative expression, as his world is rocked by events beyond his control.

Music is integrated well in Nowhere Boy, mostly consisting of the rock ‘n’ roll that captivated Lennon, and an instrumental score that alludes to its influence on the signature sound of the early Beatles. Both Johnson and Sangster played their own instruments.

Another reason to check out this film is that it was directed by Sam Taylor-Johnson. She is the director that was chosen to bring the film-version of the international best-seller Fifty Shades of Grey onto the big screen.

Nowhere Boy is available at the Whitehorse Public Library.

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