If you know the song “Mother,” one of the best in John Lennon’s Beatles or post-Beatles repertoire, you know the story of Lennon’s childhood. So sparse, angry, and beautiful, Lennon squeezes a life’s worth of emotion in those few simple lines:
“Mother, you had me but I never had you, / I wanted you but you didn’t want me, ‘ So I got to tell you, / goodbye, goodbye.”
That you could squeeze an entire film from a sentence seems possible in the case of “Mother,” and Sam Taylor-Wood has proven with his new film Nowhere Boy that you could make a really good movie with Lennon’s early life story and the right script, actors, and sense of restraint.
Restraint is something that is hard to come by in bio pics. Too often films about celebrities wink to audiences in knowing references and simplified action that caters to popular myths and understandings. Bio pics have the advantage of audiences who come to the theater with their own background knowledge and emotional attachment to the material. Often movies are satisfied with simply reflecting back the audience’s pre-existing emotions. Nowhere Boy, on the other hand, is an emotionally ambitious film, a movie that explores the forging of a musical genius, John Lennon, through the sufferings of familial rejection and dysfunction. But with these themes, it finds the material to capture something shakingly and unnervingly universal about families and parents. It is a moving and real film.
Lennon is played by Aaron Johnson, whose voice fits the role like a fitted leather glove. He is a conflicted youngster, a rebel and a rascal with a quick wit, a lust for small town adventures and a taste for rock ‘n’ roll. This rubs against his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), who raises him with his Uncle George. George is his companion. The old man and his nephew hide from his overbearing aunt, sneaking sips of whisky from a flask on John’s bed while listening to the radio. When George drops dead, John is sent adrift. At the funeral, John notices his aunt Julia for the first time; the woman turns out to be is mother.
Julia is fun-loving, spirited, and unguarded. She had John when she was young, had a second child by another man, and has now settled with a new life, husband, and two little girls. Nonetheless, she welcomes John back into her life, and the boy begins to live in between the carefree revelry of Julia’s world and the severe uprightness of his aunt Mimi. He battles his love of Julia, his loyalty to Mimi, his hatred for what Mimi represents, and his latent feelings of rejection for having been abandoned to his aunt. All the while he is learning guitar, and rock ‘n’ roll becomes more than an outlet — it seems remarkable apt at expressing how John experiences his world. Though there is scarcely a Beatles song in the film, one of Nowhere Boy’s many interesting sub-texts is its defense of the validity of rock ‘n’ roll as authentic art. We don’t hear the song until the closing credits, but the movie pounds with the beat of “Mother” throughout.
“Mother” may have served as an appropriate alternative title to Nowhere Boy. As much as the movie is about the conflicted state of the son, it is an exploration of what a mother means in the life and maturity of a human being. Allegorically, Nowhere Boy is Oedipal. There is something charged and sexual about John’s relationship with his birth mother, a feeling that complicates and fires his adolescent angst. It also lays a foundation for understanding the sexual precociousness that Lennon brought to The Beatles’ sound.
Thomas is wonderful as Mimi, who radiates with an icy care, and who can make you fear, hate, and sympathize with her character. Her relationship with John’s mom Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) is unspoken, yet complicated. We see the unsaid tension boiling on screen when they share the shot together, and it is the film’s ability to create and sustain this sense of repressed emotion and social discretion that really elevates it.
Nowhere Boy doesn’t feel like a movie about the origins of the Beatles, rather it feels like a movie about a mother and her son whose story happens to intersect with the forming of the greatest rock band of all time. That said, there are some amusing scenes in the film that satisfy the enthusiast: John meeting Paul for the first time, the first Quarrymen gig, John learning guitar and trying to sing like Elvis.
As if to reinforce its focus, the band’s name is never mentioned, only teased in a late scene just before they set off to Hamburg when John’s aunt can’t remember what his band is now called. Regardless of the band’s name, by the time they travel for that legendary residency in Hamburg, the band’s leader has lived as profoundly as some do in a lifetime. All that was left to do was share it.