John Lennon has been scrutinized and dissected not only more than any other member of the Beatles, but perhaps more than any other figure in pop culture. And why shouldn’t he be? His cosmic, freewheeling persona is the gift that keeps on giving, even 30 years after his death. Lennon’s stature as poet, prophet and revolutionary casts a long, dark shadow over pretty much everything that happened in rock music since 1960.
At the Michigan
The Weinstein Company
Perhaps it’s a testament to the impenetrability of Lennon’s legend that his life has avoided the dreaded “biopic treatment” for so long (TV movies notwithstanding), though we have been subjected to several documentaries on the man as well as — nauseatingly — two films about his murderer. But now here is Sam Taylor-Wood’s “Nowhere Boy,” a dramatization of Lennon’s early years that tragically never gets around to answering why it needed to exist in the first place.
Aaron Johnson (“Kick-Ass”) plays the teen as a troublemaking smart-ass, a Cockney prankster who, when asked to say “a few words” at a party, rattles off a string of profanities. His brashness is the best thing about the movie. Seeing Lennon unfiltered and raw like this instead of as pop music’s holy-man savior is quite refreshing, considering Johnson’s portrayal is likely the closest thing we’ll get to the truth. Lennon’s prerogative was always “goof off first, play music second.” His “Nowhere Boy” self’s chief concern isn’t to imagine there’s no heaven; it’s to keep his guardian aunt from finding out he skipped school.
But the hyperlocal scope of the film wears thin quickly. Rarely does “Nowhere Boy” move its hero beyond the three-block radius that contains his aunt’s house (where he lives) and his mother’s (where he frequents, trying to figure out where she’s been all his life). For her part, Julia Lennon (Anne-Marie Duff, “The Last Station”) is an emotionally unstable woman who showers her son with borderline Oedipal love upon his discovery of her close proximity. The relationship between her and her sister (Kristin Scott Thomas, “Gosford Park”) is in many ways the crux of whatever emotional point the film is trying to make, but their interactions are mostly sidelined until the third act, at which point the plodding dramatic structure somehow turns a real-life tragic event into a deus ex machina.
Meanwhile, the segments in which Lennon scrapes together his first musical group should be loads of fun, but only achieve mild success. Yes it’s cool to see The Quarrymen start to make a dent in the scene as Liverpool’s hippest garage band, but we don’t get enough of a look at the bandmates or their performances to feel like we’ve witnessed an often-overlooked portion of Lennon’s life. Thanks to a lack of chemistry, his budding friendship with a young Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster, “Bright Star”) feels, of all things, forced. And the obligatory “this is George” scene serves no purpose other than to wink at the camera.
Despite the movie’s shortcomings, Taylor-Wood and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (“Control”) should be applauded for even daring to tackle such a narrowly focused depiction of the music world’s most sacred cow. But if we’ve learned anything from Lennon, it’s that you can’t expect a half-hearted attempt to gain success just because no one was brave enough to try it before. Say what you will about Julie Taymor’s “Across the Universe,” but at least it had the guts to commit to a wholly unique approach to the Beatles. By comparison, “Nowhere Boy” is the music-biopic equivalent of the “Star Wars” prequels: an unnecessary origin story for a cultural icon.