The Beatles are one of those institutions that are omnipresent in popular culture. They have maintained a semi-saturation level that involves equal parts music, films, books and legend. And it has been that way since 1964, when John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, sending nearly every breathing teenage girl in America with access to a television into a screaming, delirious fit.
There's no shortage of The Beatles in film, as dozens of movies have been released over the decades that involved either the band themselves, documentaries on their music and lives, fictional accounts of their history or as inspiration for a story that relates or uses their tunes. The best would be Help or A Hard Day's Night if you want to see the boys themselves, acting goofy in exotic locations with the music guiding the way. If you want to watch something about The Beatles at nearly every stage of their existence, there's something to choose from.
And the list is still growing. Nowhere Boy, directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, is the latest in a long line of celluloid product concerning the band and its members. As I sat in the theatre and watched this listless, simplistic version of John Lennon's teenage years in Liverpool, all I could think was: do we really need another mediocre film about one of The Beatles? My answer: No, unless you are a die-hard fan of the band.
The film begins on the clean, leafy strewn, middle class row house streets of Liverpool as the teenage John Lennon (Aaron Johnson) lives with his Aunt Mimi and his Uncle George. John has a strong bond with his uncle and what male teenager in the 1950s wouldn't? George gives John booze, a harmonica and helps him appreciate music. Then he drops dead of a heart attack. Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) is nothing like George, she's stern, taciturn and serious. John begins to rebel against the confines of the many restrictions Mimi insists upon, like wearing glasses and going to school.
John begins to retreat into the world of Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), a fun-loving, rock n roll listening woman that is technically John's mom, but exists more as a friend who wants to hang out and throw parties with lots of teenagers in her house. There's actually kind of an unspoken, weird vibe passing between them that hints at the incestuous. Julia introduces John to Elvis on a newsreel and soon after he's acting up, greasing his hair and turning up his collar, just like Presley. John bounces back and forth between these two women, these two houses, these two worlds, all the while becoming more and more musically inclined.
In 1956, John forms his first group The Quarrymen, who play a popular style of English music at the time called skiffle (sort of a combination of jazz and blues minus the rawness of the rapidly approaching rock n roll). John begins to come across all the people that he would soon make true history with -- Paul McCartney and George Harrison. John's early relationship with Paul is the third major bond the film has on display, aside from Mimi and Julia. Nowhere Boy ends with the band, done with the faddish skiffle, heading off to Hamburg in 1960, just a few short years before the worldwide fame came their way.
I could not get past the casting of Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass) as the teenage Lennon. A carbon copy of a famous person we all know is usually not possible, but there is absolutely nothing about Johnson that even gives the hint of John Lennon.
Nothing. Not his looks, not his voice, not his accent. Throughout Nowhere Boy, I had to repeatedly remind myself that the story I was watching concerned the young John Lennon and not just an English teenager in 1950s Liverpool. But, Johnson is definitely "eye candy" (as the female I watched the film with described him), hence the likely reason he was cast, not for his ability to portray the teenage Lennon.
Another reason Nowhere Boy did not work was that Lennon's teenage life was hardly unique from any other person coming of age during the 1950s in England. Sure, his home life was a bit strained and strange, with the in and out role his youthful mother played, but by and large, he was a typical English teenager. He liked to smoke, chase girls, skip school, cause trouble. But, he's John Lennon, co-founder of one of the most revered and influential bands in rock history, so these everyday emotional volcanoes are mined for meaning in films such as Nowhere Boy. Take away the fact that it's Lennon's childhood and this coming of age tale is dull and uninteresting to watch.
Director Sam Taylor-Wood comes from the world of photography and the film lacks assured direction. It has a lifeless quality to it that feels forced, maudlin and inauthentic -- from the phony Liverpool streets to the woefully lip-synched musical performances. Anton Corbijn is another photographer who has recently started making films, but he chose to drown his films (Control, The American) in atmosphere and mood. Taylor-Wood attempts to go the traditional story route and it doesn't work as well for her. She gives us a clunky story (the script is by Matt Greenhalgh, who also penned the superior, previously mentioned Control) that is style-less and lacking in artistic vision considering it was shot by a renowned fine-art photographer.
When it comes to The Beatles, we've heard it, seen it or read it all before. Any new story better give us something fresh, unique or worth our time. Nowhere Boy fails at that. It's not a disastrous failure, but this is the story of John Lennon's youth and the birth of The Beatles. Words such as dull, lethargic and uninteresting should not be associated with any movie set among these people and unfortunately, that's the feeling it elicits when leaving the theatre.
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