Nowhere Boy, 2009.
Directed by Sam Taylor Wood.
Starring Aaron Johnson, Kristen Scott Thomas, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, David Threlfall, Josh Bolt, David Morrissey, Andrew Buchan, Ophelia Lovibond and Anne-Marie Duff.
The story of a teenage John Lennon’s relationship with his fragile mother and the aunt that raised him.
1. Show the protagonist, a younger version of the film’s subject. Wait about four minutes before having another character call him by his name for the ‘big reveal’, e.g. an angry aunt shouting: “John Lennon!”
2. Introduce a family complication early, e.g. the death of a father-like figure.
3. Start a band, or begin writing songs as a result of the events of ‘2’.
4. First performance.
8. Text over the closing shots saying what people did next.
…Now, it’s not the musical biopic genre’s fault that the ‘by-numbers’ template works so well. That’s what people want to see. They want to see the anxieties, hope and excitement of their favourite band’s formation. It makes you closer to them. It makes you reckon you could do the same.
So, as a victim of its own success, the musical biopic always treads a similar path. The subject changes, but hardly ever the order. 24 Hour Party People could be used as an example against, but that isn’t really a musical biopic. That’s just a biopic. Walk the Line, Control. If it ain’t broke…
…Nowhere Boy is about a young John Lennon (Aaron Johnson), sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody. When we first meet him, he’s pre-Paul. In fact, he remains pre-Paul for the first half of the film. It’s too busy for another Beatle just yet. He’s got too many mums.
For reasons that are first unclear, Lennon lives with his aunt and uncle. He gets on far better with Uncle George (David Threlfall). They drink and listen to comedy radio shows together, whilst Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott-Thomas) sits downstairs reading to classical music. It’s not a conventional family, but Lennon is content. Until George collapses and dies, that is.
At the funeral, Lennon is reacquainted with his biological mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) – Mimi’s sister. He recognises her immediately, but doesn’t know where she lives. After tracking her down, he finds her in a house, with a family, only a few streets away. Lennon is too shocked to be angry, and Julia covers up the awkwardness of the situation by being overly motherly. Mimi had fallen out with her sister over a decade ago, so she is kept unaware.
Julia introduces him to rock, roll and Elvis – whom Lennon wants to be. You suspect that’s more because of the female reactions rather than musical integrity at this point, though. Julia doesn’t seem like a mother, more like a very flirtatious friend. They dance and lie down together. Their glances into each other’s eyes hold for a half second too long. One hopes the irony wasn’t lost on Sam Taylor-Wood (the director, 44) and Aaron Johnson (21), now married and expecting their second child.
Johnson’s performance, distractions aside, captures Lennon’s quick wit. He gets a nasal quality in his voice as he says them, like some old, sarcastic queen. The only character who can match him is Scott-Thomas’ Mimi.
But apart from the performances, this is still ‘by-numbers’. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but you’d expect something a little more inventive from those involved. Sam Taylor-Wood, a former Young British Artist (so, an Old British Artist?), conjures a few pleasant framings, but there’s only the occasional half-inspired visual. One is a single-shot montage where actors walk through a room at different speeds whilst Lennon learns the banjo. It’s very complex, and must have been tricky to pull off, but it’s nothing new.
John Luc Goddard does that thing sometimes where he’ll put a piece of text on a black background in his films. It’ll say a single word, but then he’d break it down into two – like ‘Nothing’ becoming ‘No’ and ‘Thing’. Nowhere Boy feels as though it should be more experimental with its material. It’s ‘by-numbers’, when it should have been arty.
That one’s for free.
But then, when everything starts to break down and come out near the end, in one scene between Lennon and his two mothers, you start to appreciate all the character groundwork the film had previously, subtly laid out. The camera gets closer and shaky, just like the characters. The performances are sublime, which is presumably where Taylor-Wood’s talents lie. Johnson’s cocksure Lennon dissipates into a crying, sobbing, nowhere boy. That he can convey such emotion so well in a Liverpudlian accent is a testament to his skill. Just when you were thinking how ‘by-numbers’ this all is – good and entertaining, but formulaic – the film presents its stand out scene, revealing the reasons behind Lennon’s parental arrangements. The details are simultaneously specific and outlandish, as though from a crude soap opera, but told with such sincerity that it becomes more real than anything else. And, of course, it is real – the film is based on truth.
You forget that, though, sometimes. With the ‘by-numbers’ and all that. Biopics create a distance between the characters and audience because of it, even though their intention is to perform the exact opposite. It takes great scenes like that to make it count again.
365 Days, 100 Films