Nowhere Boy


Nowhere Boy

Julia Lennon and her baby boy John.

(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

The U.S. vs. John Lennon


The U.S. vs. John Lennon

John Lennon and Yoko Ono express their First Amendment rights.

(Lionsgate) John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Gore Vidal, Walter Cronkite, John Dean, Noam Chomsky, Carl Bernstein, Angela Davis, David Peel, Tom Smothers, Paul Krassner, Leon Wildes. Directed by David Leaf and John Scheinfeld

I’ve made no secret that John Lennon is one of my all-time heroes. You would think that a documentary of the man’s life would be like catnip to me.

And in many senses it is just like catnip, albeit somewhat diluted. The movie focuses on his post-Beatles days to a very great extent, particularly on his anti-war activism and resulting attempts from the United States government to get the ex-Beatle deported as an undesirable alien.

John Lennon was never one to stand still for injustice, even when it was being perpetrated on himself. He fought back and would eventually win in a story that is fascinating and indeed inspiring, although you get little sense of it here.

The documentary starts with Lennon’s defense of former MC5 manager (and anti-war radical) John Sinclair who was sent to jail for ten years for selling an undercover cop two joints, which even then seemed excessive. Lennon would perform at a benefit concert for Sinclair, who would wind up serving 29 months of his ten year sentence thanks largely in part to the high-profile supporters like Lennon which would pressure the Supreme Court of Michigan to overturn the law Sinclair was convicted on as unconstitutional. However, the negative fall-out was that the federal government began to take an interest in the pop singer.

For his part, Lennon’s introduction and eventual marriage to Japanese artists Yoko Ono would help to direct his energies to anti-war efforts and pro-peace. This would lead to highly publicized stunts like his bed-in honeymoon; Lennon was fully aware of his celebrity and how to use it properly, and he was quite willing and able to use it that way.

This was intolerable to an administration that wasn’t averse to fighting dirty as well, and at the impetus of a group of conservative politicians led by Senator Strom Thurmond, the Immigration and Naturalization Service began proceedings to deport Lennon due to a marijuana conviction in England years earlier as an undesirable.

The actual fight against the INS and, by extension, the U.S. government, was more or less one of attrition as most of the fight consisted of hearings, delays, stays and legal maneuvering by the government lawyers and Leon Wildes, Lennon’s immigration lawyer. In reality, that aspect of the story was rather boring so the filmmakers more or less overlook it.

Unfortunately, what the filmmakers do rely on is a barrage of talking head interviews with people like G. Gordon Liddy (one of the few giving the opposing viewpoint, which while not a requirement for a good documentary can make a documentary better), Yoko Ono, Black Panther Bobby Seales, authors Vidal and Chomsky as well as other luminaries of the period and later giving their opinions on what Lennon was doing, or possibly thinking.

What’s missing here is a real sense of who Lennon was. We mostly see the events here through Yoko’s eyes which in itself wouldn’t be a bad thing – she was his soul mate after all, and knew him better than anybody did – but it turns more or less into the Yoko show, opining that Lennon wasn’t a fully realized human being until Yoko wandered into his life which seems a bit disingenuous to me.

Still, while this could have been a much better documentary, there are things worth seeing in it, like the archival footage of Lennon’s protests and snippets of the man’s music. However, the movie spends too much time on its own agenda – that of comparing the anti-war efforts of Vietnam to modern anti-war efforts against Iraq and painting Yoko Ono as Lennon’s adult conscience – to really bring the story of John Lennon to life. I think for the time being we’ll have to continue to rely on his own music to do that for us.

WHY RENT THIS: Some wonderful footage brings the anti-war efforts to life, and illustrates Lennon’s passion for the cause.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Way too much talking head footage.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few images of sensuality and violence, some drug references and a few bad words, but by and large this is fine for mature teens, who should be seeing works like this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lennon’s early years will be depicted in Nowhere Boy, to be released in October 2010.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While deleted footage is scarcely notable, the scenes here that went on the cutting room floor contain a myriad of interesting scenes, including assassin Mark David Chapman’s 2000 parole hearing, Lennon’s final rehearsed concert and some footage on his early years.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant