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Thread: NOWHERE BOY (Sam Taylor-Wood 2010)

  1. #1
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    NOWHERE BOY (Sam Taylor-Wood 2010)

    Sam Taylor-Wood: NOWHERE BOY (2010)


    Aaron Johnson, Thomas Brodie Sangster in Nowhere Boy

    Chords, torments, and portents of pop greatness in Liverpool

    Review by Chris Knipp

    Nowhere Boy, conceptual artist Taylor-Ward's directorial debut about the teenage John Lennon, is an entertaining movie with some delightful if fleeting dawn-of-the-pre-Beattles thrills and some intense biographical emotion concerning the two conflicted women in young John's life, depicted here up to his departure for Hamburg with his skiffle band in 1960. Though penned by Matt Greenhalgh, who wrote Anton Corbijn's Ian Curtis story Control (relying on a memoir by Lennon's half-sister Julia Baird), this isn't as intriguing a personality study or as cohesive a birth-of-a-band movie as Corbijn's depiction of Joy Division and its troubled lead singer. Nonetheless it does vividly etch the dynamics of John Lennon's early years.

    Lennon was raised from the age of five by his severe and determinedly middle-class aunt Mimi, who always serves tea and never lets John go out without his glasses. She's played by Kristin Scott Thomas, who seems unsure at first whether she's impersonating a working-class woman putting on gentility, or the Duchess of Windsor, but who eventually delivers a warm and subtle performance. When his step-dad George suddenly dies, John discovers his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) has been living only a few streets away in Liverpool. He rebels by going to her -- wooing and being wooed by her.

    By the way, what about the Liverpool accents? The actors who play the Quarrymen, John and the others who morphed into the Beatles, are all from somewhere else, and they only occasionally capture the lilt we heard whenever John, Paul, George, and Ringo opened their mouths.

    Anyway, Julia greets her son with no explanations of her long invisibility, but simply with rapture. The scenes between John and Julia are both giddy and embarrassing: she treats him more like a young lover than a son. Duff overplays her early scenes with stylized expressions and gestures. And when she and pretty-faced, hunky, peaches-and-cream-skinned Aaron Johnson as John (the 43-year-old director's real-life 20-year-old husband), smooch and dance and flirt, it's incestuously creepy. This evidently was an aspect of the relationship, but would be more haunting if it had been filmed with a little more restraint. It's likewise a matter of controversy whether the relationship between the two sisters was really as combative as depicted here.

    Besides flirting with Julie, young John -- who declares himself a genius and is annoyed at not being Elivs Presley -- also shamelessly woos the camera, adopting fetching poses and memorably sitting to stare at his first guitar as if admiring a great painting or a nude lady. It's a nice pause for breath and a memorable moment: Taylor-Wood and her cinematographer Seamus McGarvey are sometimes better at tableaux and closeups of people weeping (or posing) than at dialogue, which can be obvious and overdrawn in the usual manner of biopics. The point is nonetheless well taken, and not out of keeping with Lennon's own declarations, that he was an egocentric young lout, overtly pleased with himself, yet inwardly troubled.

    There are progressive musical and family climaxes. Lennon listens to songs with his mother and learns to play the banjo from her, then, when forced to go back to the household of his emotionally pinched if secretly adoring aunt, announces to her -- as if to turn family frustration blatantly into music -- that he's forming a rock n' roll band. The quick assembling of school friends for the Quarrymen recalls Control's picture of the genesis of Joy Division. But apart from a couple of concert moments, the band stuff is relatively limited in this film. Not a good sign is that its first real musical frisson comes when John is introduced, late in the game, to a geeky 15-year-old called Paul, who sings stylishly and plays a killer guitar. This is not because we know it's Paul McCarthy so much as because the actor who plays him, Thomas Brodie Sangster, not only has an arresting and winning oddness, but has all the right moves when he plays. (It's not clear whether the actors all play and sing their own stuff as the guys in Control did in that film's more extended concert sequences.)

    The big action is the family stuff. The movie shows clearly what torment the teenage Lennon goes through. He faces complete ignorance of who his father is, the mental instability of his mother, the withholding of his guardian Mimi. And along with that -- or indistinguishable from it? hard to say -- is his burgeoning rock n' roll rebellion, tutored by, among other things, films of Elvis (whose hair style and clothes he adopts) and Screamin' Jay Hawkins doing "I Put a Spell on You" -- on a disc he's traded for some jazz vinyl he stole from a record store. The movie gets young Lennon's multi-level torment and anger across pretty well. Even though at times Aaron Johnson seems more like a sexy pose-striker than a tormented, talented youth, we can take his poetic talent and penchant for drawing on faith. His intelligence, acid wit, and musical gifts, on the other hand, aren't so convincingly communicated. What we learn is that it's baby-faced Paul who shows him more complex guitar cord sequences the banjo lessons from his mum didn't impart.

    For all its tragedy and emotional conflict, its hints of nascent pop greatness in the Liverpool boys' skiffle band, this is a 98-minute film, and it's over before you want it to be. Its flaws don't keep it from making you hungry for more. The paternity issue and questions about why he was raised by Mimi lead to a huge emotional showdown. Mimi gradually shows she does love John dearly (and Scott Thomas drops the Wallace Warfield act) and, having reluctantly come to support John's not-very-bourgeois desire to be a working class rock n' roll idol, warms up considerably as a character. The band gets itself together and they're off to Hamburg, and closing titles touchingly inform us that John called Mimi as soon as he got there, just as she had asked, and every week of his life thereafter. We've only heard one early John Lennon song, "Hello Little Girl." There is plenty of good period rock n' roll, however. Unfortunately we're also served up some generic movie background music at melodramatic moments. Nonetheless, the look of the film and its period feel are fine. Beatle and Lennon diehards, or any fans of music biopics, especially the British kind, will enjoy this movie. Purists will still prefer to rent the 1994 film Backbeat, about the Hamburg years, which provides a richer sense of the band coming together and features a more accurate Lennon impersonator (and native Liverpudlian), Ian Hart.

    Among other BAFTA awards this film is nominated for Scott Thomas as Outstanding Supporting Actress, and though wobbly direction makes her performance inconsistent it is good to see the usually francophone but British-born actress in an English film. Anne-Marie Duff, likewise nominated, also delivers an inconsistent performance, which holds the attention, but not altogether in a good way.

    Nowhere Boy went into much-delayed limited US release October 8, 2010.

  2. #2
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    This comment from the AV Club blog to this movie adds some more info:

    Wow.

    Neil Poon Handler

    7 Oct. 2010 | 6:11 PM CDT

    I had no idea until fairly recently that Aaron Johnson, who portrayed the titular lead in Kick-Ass, was British. Kind of blew my mind a bit - he really nailed an American accent in that movie, IMO, and he was perfect as an awkward teenager.

    Plus, he totally married the MILF director of this movie and had a kid with her.

    Niiiiiiiiiiiiice.
    I mentoned Aaron Johnson was married to Taylor-Ward. He fathered her child. And he was the teenage superhero who starts the crazy story going in KICK-ASS. And he IS just like an American teen in that.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Jul 2002
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    This comment from the AV Club blog to this movie adds some more info:

    Wow.

    Neil Poon Handler

    7 Oct. 2010 | 6:11 PM CDT

    I had no idea until fairly recently that Aaron Johnson, who portrayed the titular lead in Kick-Ass, was British. Kind of blew my mind a bit - he really nailed an American accent in that movie, IMO, and he was perfect as an awkward teenager.

    Plus, he totally married the MILF director of this movie and had a kid with her.

    Niiiiiiiiiiiiice.
    I mentoned Aaron Johnson was married to Taylor-Ward. He fathered her child. And he was the teenage superhero who starts the crazy story going in KICK-ASS. And he IS just like an American teen in that.

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