The fate of John Lennon is sealed early on into Nowhere Boy, which charts the young musician’s ascension from Elvis-worshiping schoolboy to the brainchild behind the Quarrymen to, finally, the lead singer of an unnamed band created with chums Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Coming home from a day of flirting with local girls and mucking about with his brand new harmonica, young John (played by a convincingly charming and devilish Aaron Johnson) listens to Tchaikovsky and comedy programs on the radio with his Uncle George (David Threlfall) who quite suddenly drops dead, leaving the budding musician in the sole care of his disciplined Aunt Mimi (the reliably outstanding Kristin Scott Thomas). At George’s funeral, the boy spots a comely red head distanced from the gravesite and, after just a bit of snooping, comes to the realization that this is Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), his biological mother.
Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, who is married to her star and is currently carrying his child, it is coincidental, if fittingly so, that Nowhere Boy is obsessed with the mother figure, whether in the guise of Lennon’s dueling guardians or the schoolgirls and fans that he happily beds. Julia’s insistence on an uncomfortably close relationship with the son she lost nearly a decade beforehand doesn’t help any, fueling a perverse jealousy between John and Julia’s new husband. For as soon as Uncle George hits the floor, John’s father figures become Elvis, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Jerry Lee Lewis; boys his age are either underlings, rivals or, in rare cases, fellow musicians he covertly respects. The Quarrymen are formed after John is essentially abandoned by Julia a second time and he stares at her from a makeshift stage, exerting the ravenous power of rock & roll with full knowledge of what it does to women of any age.
The first half of Wood’s film, climaxing with the meeting of McCartney (Thomas Sangster) and Lennon after the first Quarrymen show, is a smartly paced, rollicking entertainment with much of its inherent melodrama underplayed via Scott Thomas’s long gazes and playful, flirtatious gestures between Johnson and Duff. Adapted by Matt Greenhalg, who also wrote the screenplay for Anton Corbijn’s Control, from the memoir written by Julia Baird, Lennon’s younger half-sister, Nowhere Boy nevertheless descends into the usual fits of songwriting, emotional familial revelations, and problems with booze and women that have come to typify that most tiresome of subgenres, the biopic. We might very well thank Taylor-Wood and Greenhalg that the film ends well before the band become the paradigm of pop culture obsession the world over.
Lennon, however, is already the obsession of Julia and as played by Duff, she’s an epic tease, promising him music, booze and a life filled with good times. But, as Lennon screams in a cathartic unloading, she’s already in his head, and she will be the burden of every woman to whom he ever lifts an eyebrow. As an entertainment, Nowhere Boy at least has the good sense to tie itself to a psychological anchor, even if many of these psychological underpinnings are eventually spoken aloud as pandering exposition which ruins a great deal of the fun. Working with the talented cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (High Fidelity, Atonement) and editor Lisa Gunning, Taylor-Wood does an efficient job of punctuating scenes with images from the story’s climactic reveal, giving this engaging if slight film a needed sturdiness, even when the emotions feel commonplace. By the end, as Lennon’s bittersweet “Mother” plays over the credits, we are reassured that Lennon had someone to call weekly and speak to, but we’re also drawn to the fact that he never quite knew where to return.