"I'm gonna start a rock 'n' roll band." While much of the advertising for Nowhere Boy, artist Sam Taylor Wood's John Lennon biopic, has focused on the young Liverpudlian's first steps into music, the film has a much more unusual tale to tell.
As a young boy, Lennon's mother Julia (Duff) was unable to cope with ... well, less motherhood, more life in general. John (Johnson) was then raised by his aunt Mimi (Scott Thomas) and beloved uncle George (Threlfall). When George dies suddenly, John's life is thrown into turmoil, partly from his loss, mostly from the offhand comment from a cousin asking if John wants to meet his mum.
After so many years of Mimi's strictness – and with no George to provide some levity – Julia is a breath of the proverbial, a party girl who doesn't take anything seriously, teaches John to play the ukelele and introduces him to rock 'n' roll. Julia's influence starts as the catalyst for John's musical career – initially with his hastily assembled skiffle band, then with a young Paul McCartney (Sangster) – but problems follow soon after.There's friction between Mimi and the flighty Julia, between Julia and her other half Bobby (Morrissey, underused but excellent), concerned about her mental state, and ultimately John and Julia, as her semi-permanent, noisy presence becomes a source of embarrassment.
And it's all solild stuff. Flawed, to be sure, but solid stuff. Johnson is mostly convincing as Lennon (even if his accent heads back south on a semi-regular basis), the sense of period is brilliantly handled and, with Scott Thomas and Duff as your female leads, you're never going to go far wrong.
It is then a perfectly decent directorial debut from artist Sam Taylor Wood. The surprise though is just how conventional it all is. Taylor Wood at the helm suggested a new take on the biopic, a fresh pair of creative eyes to bring something new to the genre. Or, very possibly, utter artwank. While it's as far from the latter as it's possible to get, you can't help but think that artwank might have been preferable to this safe, very pedestrian film.
It's well made and tells a good tale but it's got about two weeks before it gets completely blown away from the absolutely brilliant Ian Dury biopic, Sex & Drugs & Rock 'n' Roll. That film — which even now I fully expect to remain my favourite film of 2010 — takes the Dury story, spins it with some potentially ludicrous creative flair, and ends up as an utterly thrilling, enthralling film that gets to the heart of Dury's genius and flaws. It also helps, of course, that they have Andy Serkis as their lead (who you can expect to hoover up EVERY major UK acting prize and, if there's any justice, all the US ones too) rather than the acceptable-but-dull Johnson. Taylor Wood has done everything perfectly well, but there's nothing of her on display and Nowhere Boy, while satisfactory, is thus crying out for some personality.
EXTRAS ★??? An audio commentary with director Taylor-Wood; a making-of featurette; an extended interview with Taylor-Wood; a featurette called Lennon’s Liverpool; the featurette The Re-creation of Lennon and the Quarrymen; the anatomy of a scene, That’s When I Stole Him; three deleted scenes, introduced by Taylor-Wood; the theatrical trailer; and a photo gallery.