A troubled young teen in 1950s Liverpool finds an outlet in rock ’n’ roll in Nowhere Boy, a movie about the teen years of one John Lennon.
John (Aaron Johnson) is a troublemaker at school and seemingly often in trouble at home, where he lives with his Aunt Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas) and his boisterous Uncle George (David Threlfall). While Mimi has the stiffest of stiff upper lips (and is a fan of order and responsibility, etc.), George is more laughs and cutting-up. He buys John a harmonica and helps him wire a speaker for the radio to his room. But George dies suddenly, leaving John and Mimi alone. Restless John decides to seek out Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), Mimi’s sister and the redhead who shows up briefly at George’s funeral. Julia is John’s real mother, but he hasn’t lived with her since he was a little boy — and can’t really remember his father.
Now remarried with two daughters, Julia is thrilled to see John — she enjoys hanging out with him, introducing him to Elvis and treating him almost more like a high school boyfriend than a son. When he’s suspended, she agrees to keep the news from Mimi and spends the days teaching him guitar. John seems besotted by his mother and her lack of Mimi’s strictness. But he also harbors a deep anger at her for not being around in his childhood.
That mix of dreaminess and pissiness, love and hate is perfectly channeled into rock ’n’ roll. John tells Mimi at one point that he wants to be Elvis Presley and he starts The Quarrymen, a band of teens, none of whom really know how to play their instruments. John likes the strutting the band allows him to do, vacillating between too-cool-for-school and miserable jerk, even when an earnest and genuinely talented boy named Paul (Thomas Sangster) shows up.
If Julia is the spirit of rock ’n’ roll, Paul as we see him here is the one who introduces the mechanics. He’s the one who teaches John chords and gets him to see music for the music (not just the picking-up-girls possibilities). It is a very brief window on this partnership that would eventually mean so much to the music world but it’s a fascinating one.
Things you don’t hear in this movie: any of Lennon’s post-Quarrymen music (except one marvelous note at the beginning of the movie that could be the beginning of “Hard Day’s Night”), the name of the band he travels to Hamburg with. We meet another musician , a guitar player named George (Sam Bell), but see very little of their relationship. Of John Lennon’s pre-Hamburg art-school years you see very little. The movie is focused entirely on the family turmoil of one young man and, in the background, the dawn of rock ’n’ roll.
Nowhere Boy is a fun look at post-war Britain, a cute story about the early years of rock, a sweet and sad story about a kid’s coming of age and a compelling look at what turned a teenage wannabe into a music legend. B+
Rated R for language and a scene of sexuality. Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood and written by Matt Greenhalgh (from a memoir by Julia Baird), Nowhere Boy is an hour and 35 minutes long and distributed by The Weinstein Company.