(2009) Biographical Drama (Weinstein) Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas, Thomas Sangster, Anne-Marie Duff, Josh Bolt, David Threlfall, Sam Bell, Ophelia Lovibond, Paul Ritter, James Johnson, David Morrissey, Andrew Buchan, James Jack Bentham. Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood
It is said that great men often come from humble beginnings, and there are few beginnings more humble than the working class Liverpool of the 1950s. From there sprung the Beatles and specifically, John Lennon (Johnson), a man who has reached near saint-like standing today.
Yet this film isn’t about John Lennon the Beatle or John Lennon the activist. It’s about John Lennon, the 15-year-old boy who had a charming grin and a goofy wit, as well as a rebellious streak and a lot of pain hidden in deep reservoirs within him.
The source of this pain was a feeling of abandonment; from the age of five, he had been raised by his Aunt Mimi (Thomas) and Uncle George (Threlfall). While his Uncle was a good-natured man who understood his nephew seemingly better than the uptight Mimi, Lennon wondered about who his daddy was or why his mother Julia (Duff) had allowed someone else to raise him.
He would get his answers although not quickly. He encounters Julia at a funeral, then is stunned when he learns she lives mere blocks away from his house. He decides to visit her with mate Pete (Bolt) – not Best, incidentally – under the guise of getting away to Blackpool for the afternoon, and is welcomed with open arms.
Julia is very different from his Aunt Mimi…night and day, really. Whereas Mimi is guarded, the epitome of a stiff-upper-lip Brit, Julia wears her heart on her sleeve, and expresses her emotions freely. Where Mimi is conservative and pedestrian in her tastes, Julia loves rock and roll and wants to experience everything. They may have been sisters, but they were as bi-polar as could be.
At first there’s a good deal of competition between the two. Mimi resents Julia’s intrusion into her ordered upbringing of John and Julia wants to resume her duties as mother again, duties she felt were taken away from her against her will. While Mimi is too mannerly to allow their rivalry to become ugly, there is certainly tension between the two women.
As John learns the details of Julia’s life and why things happened the way they did, he begins to pull away from both women. About this time he sees a newsreel of Elvis Presley at the movie theater and is taken by it; the screaming of the girls, the adoration, he wants it for himself. “Why couldn’t God have made me Elvis?” he muses out loud in one of the film’s forced ironies. His adoring mother responds “Because he was saving you for John Lennon,” which is as good an answer as any of us ever get. The irony here is that while he sees the adoration, he doesn’t see how that adoration can become a prison and it’s a prison he will wind up inhabiting for much of his adult life; it is a prison that will get him killed far too young.
As rock and roll begins to take him away from his studies, the strain between he and Mimi reaches a breaking point and John will soon have to make a choice between his dreams, the love of the woman who raised him and the need for the love and approval of his birth mother. Could he really have it all?
Matt Greenhalgh wrote this based on the memoirs of Julia Baird, Lennon’s half–sister (shown in the movie as the elder of Julia and her husband Bobby’s (Morrissey) two daughters), and I imagine that her own reminiscence is colored by the loyalty to her own mother, who is shown to be far more sympathetic than the often priggish Mimi.
Johnson, made a splash earlier this year in Kick-Ass (which he actually filmed after this movie which was released in Britain almost a year ago), a role very different than this one. Here he is introspective, moody and so full of teen angst it’s leaking out his ears. This role demands a certain amount of gravitas and Johnson provides it nicely. He only resembles Lennon superficially on a physical level, but he captures the swagger and the silly side of him well.
Thomas has to make what is essentially a closed-off woman sympathetic, a very difficult task in the best of circumstances and few actors have the chops to pull it off well, but Thomas manages most of the time. Duff has a different sort of challenge, making the carefree and somewhat scatterbrained Julia relatable, and she pulls it off as well. There is some evidence that the real Julia had some mental illness in her background and Duff hints at it nicely.
As I said, this isn’t about the Beatles although Paul McCartney (Sangster) and George Harrison (Bell) do show up, but only Paul makes much of an impact here as we see the rivalry between John and Paul begin to develop at its earliest stages.
We do see the emphasis John placed on his music; we just don’t get what really drove him as a person, and as the film sort of sets you up to believe that it will, it came as a letdown to me and cost the movie ratings points which may have been more of the fault of studio marketing executives than the filmmakers.
Most of the music on the soundtrack is of cover tunes – not a single Beatles song shows up here, other than the iconic opening chord of “Hard Day’s Night” which opens the movie with the reverence of church bells but somewhat predictably is part of a dream sequence. However, I will say the musical sequences are done well enough.
It’s a bit of a disappointment but the movie is well-acted enough and does give enough insight into Lennon’s formative years to still get a recommendation from me. Of course, keep in mind that Lennon is a personal hero of mine, so be warned by that caveat that I might be softer on a film about him than I might otherwise be – or quite possibly and in fact more likely, harder.
REASONS TO GO: A look at the ex-Beatle’s formative years, a period not much covered by biographers. Strong performances by Johnson, Duff and Thomas.
REASONS TO STAY: You never really get any insight as to what drove Lennon other than mommy issues.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of rough language, a bit of sexuality and a whole lot of drinking and smoking; I would say it’s probably safe for most teens.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Aaron Johnson did most of his own singing for the movie, which was released in the U.S. the day before what would have been Lennon’s 70th birthday.
HOME OR THEATER: Home viewing for this one, definitely.
FINAL RATING: 7/10
TOMORROW: I Sell the Dead