The Same Old Song
John Lennon would’ve turned 70 years old this week. That is surely why the ever-savvy Weinstein brothers had decided to open Nowhere Boy, a biopic concerned with the artist’s formative years, over the particular weekend.
As we meet him, John (Aaron “Kick-Ass” Johnson) is a teen both troublesome in school and troubled at home. He envies Elvis and emulates Buddy Holly, not wanting to be a musician so much as a rock star. That’s not about to happen under the watchful eye of uptight Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), but once he discovers that his estranged biological mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), actually lives quite near to their home, he spends more time with her, dodging school, taking up the banjo and generally trying to keep long-brewing feelings of resentment and abandonment at bay.
Sure, John will soon enough meet schoolmate and fellow music lover Paul (Thomas Sangster) before forming a band together, but director Sam Taylor-Wood’s focus remains more on a standard-issue coming-of-age tale than your average rise-to-stardom biopic. She’s got the then and there of ’50s Liverpool down pat, but the mommy issues at hand are timeless so far as melodrama fodder is concerned. Thomas does stern yet sad like a champ, as she always has, while Duff turns on the freewheeling charm that lures John in just as it has countless men before (including his own father); the two make for ideal responsible/rambunctious counterpoints for our young lad to be torn between.
Johnson, however, can’t manage much emotion beyond surface-level swagger and on-cue pouting, deeming himself a genius before the school’s headmaster without proving it beyond a fondness for scribbling down poetry. He’s more restless than revolutionary, running circles around no one in particular and already waiting for the day when John Lennon might find himself flocked by fans; whether that attitude is indicative more of the subject’s ego or of the actor’s hindsight is hard to say. Even when Johnson’s performance does threaten to match those given by his co-stars, the conflict still feels more indebted to any given soap opera than the telling psychological foundation of an eventual musical icon.
The film, like its title, feels slightly familiar but mostly generic, playing coy with who John Lennon was and would be. Nowhere Boy doesn’t come across as the story of a man whose work many would adore long after his death; it’s the story of a kid who just happened to let his guitar strumming drown out his own whine.
William Goss lives in Orlando, Florida. But don’t hold that against him.
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