Friday, January 7, 2011

Nowhere Boy

I don't give a shit about The Beatles. Never have. I can name all four Beatles, of course, along with a handful of albums and songs through sheer pop cultural osmosis, but of the roughly two thousand songs in my iTunes library there are exactly zero by The Beatles (although there is one Paul McCartney song, "Live and Let Die") and when conversation turns to the brilliance or influence of The Beatles all I can really do is rock on my heels or quietly slink away, because the only thing exceeding my lack of ability to contribute is my lack of interest to do so. I say all this not to be King Contrarian but to make the point that when I declare the not-new-but-new-to-me John Lennon biopic Nowhere Boy to be a really good movie it's not coming from any kind of Beatles or Lennon fanboyism whatsoever; it's just a damn good movie.

The narrative decision that sets it apart from musician biopics like Ray, Walk the Line, and The Runaways (along with my personal favorite, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story) is how little it actually focuses on Lennon's music career. We do see Lennon start a band as a teenager (The Quarrymen, not The Beatles, which is what it's known as for most of the movie) and we meet a startlingly tiny Paul McCartney, followed by George Harrison, see a few musical numbers, and even get the musician biopic obligatory recording booth scene, but this is really just a major subplot that unfolds in the background and the film stops years short of The Beatles' peak.

What Nowhere Boy is really about is the odd three-way relationship between Lennon and his two moms: his somewhat strict and emotionally guarded Aunt Mimi who he lived with and who raised him, and his more freespirited biological mother Julia who reenters his life in the mid-50s after his uncle dies. Although Mimi loves him in her own way, Lennon finds himself drawn increasingly towards Julia, spending more and more time at her flat and awkwardly trying to integrate himself into her new family. The movie places John's relationships with Paul and George far down in prominence below Mimi and Julia, which was great for someone like me who knew of The Beatles but didn't know shit about the man's life story, because it was all new and fascinating information. At a certain point even John himself seems to recede a bit into the background as Mimi and Julia begin reconnecting as sisters and laying bare their decades-long gripes with each other.

And while I can't speak for how actual Lennon fans may feel about him being occasionally sidelined in his own movie, it was all well and good far as I was concerned. Aaron Johnson (formerly of Kick-Ass, now getting a chance to finally flex his real British accent) gives a casually cool performance as Lennon, but the movie is effortlessly stolen out from under him every time Anne-Marie Duff or Kristin Scott Thomas enter the scene as Julia or Mimi, respectively. Anne-Marie Duff in particular absolutely glows; she's so good that she almost deflects some of the creepiness from the inescapably present Oedipal vibe as she and John dance and cuddle and seemingly flirt with each other. A quick skim of her IMDb page reveals that I've never seen her in anything else, but she won me over completely within her first minute of screentime and I hope to see her on the big screen again in coming years.

If anything, Nowhere Boy's weakest moments are when it drifts away from Lennon's moms to focus more on the man himself, taking pains to make sure we know he was a rebel teenage badass who talked back to his teachers and fucked the pretty girls, easily the least interesting of the movie's insights. But these more generic musician biopic segments take backseat to the familial strife that keeps the film fresh and interesting until the end credits roll. I still don't give a shit about The Beatles' music, but I must say I'd have no problem if in five years they picked up with Aaron Johnson and the same filmmaking team for a sequel about The Beatles when they were more popular than Jesus.

3 Stars out of 5

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