John Lennon was, if not the tonal, then the spiritual lead of the fab four, a cumbersome torch he would carry until his—and by extension, the Beatles’s—death. But his was also the sort of mercurial genius that could have only gathered power when buffered by putative equals of lesser rawness: Unlike Elvis, who wielded a down-to-earth trinity of voice, hips, and ego, Lennon won admiration by cutting through convoluted pain with confessional condescension. “My mama told me I was great,” he once sang. We allow it knowing that such compliments are shattered pacts from ghosts jutting visibly out of the man’s self-effaced heart. Lennon’s global stardom is also unique in its utter lack of vicarious appeal; despite supposedly being named after the guy, even I would be hesitant to swap places with him, whether or not we disregard the unsavory background details from childhood up to the Mark Chapman incident. His songs, though occasionally whimsical, never fully obfuscate their tortured roots nor their unabashed facilitation of rock n’ roll as catharsis. And when all is said and done, Lennon was probably the most deservedly famous and most vocationally able prick to ever walk the planet.
The biography Nowhere Boy is first and foremost a reminder of this, and of the tragic confusion from which it sprang. Director Sam Taylor-Wood (making her feature debut) and writer Matt Greenhalgh (adapting the memoirs of Lennon’s half-sister) fashion a portrait of the pop icon as a young man victimized by familial dysfunction, with very few ostentatious nods to Beatle-philia; we hardly even notice when George Harrison shows up with his infamous facsimile of Bill Justis’s “Raunchy.” This staunch concentration on the dynamics of Lennon’s childhood leaves little room, thankfully, for the allusive etiologies that typically litter the average bio-pic (e.g., the lancing of extramarital wounds with “Hit the Road, Jack” in Ray, or the titular dressing down of Walk the Line). And though the dearth of chronological identifiers (there are no title cards with dates or cities) may at first alienate Menlove Avenue neophytes, they ultimately provide a startling amount of ontological elbow room; the cheeky title aside, the filmmakers treat Lennon no differently than any other debilitatingly befuddled teen, and in doing so refuse to deliver the expected “The Walrus: The Adolescent Years.”
This also prepares us to forgive sparkly, blue-eyed Aaron Johnson’s bluntly irascible portrayal of the jejune idol, whose ne’er-do-well streak is only half-convincing; when he plucks a female classmate from a small crowd for a spontaneous blowjob, his swagger is all amusement and no passion. And when his estranged mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) introduces him to rockabilly, he seems to embrace it only via his vaguely Oedipal attraction toward her, evincing none of his trademark anguish. But we forget that the inchoate Lennon who bent intimidated fingers around a tenor banjo isn’t necessarily the same one that erotically mutilated his vocal chords for the sake of “Twist and Shout.” Of course, Taylor-Wood, Greenhalgh, and Johnson aren’t any better acquainted with this early iteration than we are, but their educated guesswork forms a noteworthy dramatic, rather than biographical, experiment. The film feels like a shortsighted artifact; it’s filtered through the glossy, Freudian lens of modern media discourse (and the blue-bleached cinematography of Seamus McGarvey), but the character perspective makes an honest effort to forget how far Lennon’s angst would take him.
The tempered historicity occasionally descends into facile myth; during a scene in the first act, Julia even didactically proclaims that her son wasn’t born as Elvis “because God was saving [him] for John Lennon.” But when John responds to this compliment with punch-drunk, puppy-love gratification, we feel the dense shadow of “Norwegian Wood,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Yoko Ono, and The Mike Douglas Show melting away into more generic maternal manipulation. A similarly unsentimental approach is taken when Paul McCartney (a gloriously whiny, round-faced Thomas Brodie Sangster), fresh to the Quarrymen skiffle group, sits down to show Lennon his bar chord technique; the soundtrack creaks and clinks with dead but determined strings rather than nascent harmony. The film may fail to delve into these relationships beyond the aforementioned genuine gestures, but it’s significantly peering at them from the other end of the annals. Julia seems like nothing more than an irresponsible parent, and John like nothing more than an energetic delinquent with a modest gift. For all his achievements, he may not have strayed far from that self-identification.
Nowhere Boy comes close to pinning down an only-cursorily defined subgenre: the formative-years dramatization that views the biographical subject’s future success as tangential. The curious feeling of newness it provokes, however, also exacerbates its narrative flaws. “The dream is over,” or at least feels blown, at the first signs of clunky dialog and shallow psychoanalysis; we simply can’t suspend our disbelief of this superficially tweaked, primordial Lennon for the sake of the sisterly custody battle at the story’s core. Whenever the pre-Beatle bounces between his stern but sturdy aunt, Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), and his arousing but mercurial mother, we’re made painfully aware of the movie’s Dionysian/Apolline flimsiness; in their attempt to “generalize” Lennon’s story, Taylor-Wood and Greenhalgh convert their supporting cast into identifiable but bland types. This leaks through to the emotional climax, wherein Lennon’s final decision of who to trust is merely revealed rather than ruminated on, and Julia’s tearful admission to his abandonment triggers a slew of fish-eyed, Dexter-like flashbacks.
But while the triteness is disappointing, one can at least guess that the focus on John and Mimi’s rocky, pseudo-filial partnership would have pleased Lennon himself; we can’t even begin to comprehend the muddled if overly confident mind of a boy who was forced twice to choose the less nocuous of two apathetic parents. And this may explain Lennon’s immunity to opprobrium better than any lyric about being a loser or a murderously jealous guy. How could we hate or humiliate Lennon any more than he’d been trained to hate and humiliate himself?