Friday, April 1, 2011

Rock on Film Part 14: Nowhere Boy

Always a risk, this retelling of the early life of John Lennon does something refreshing: it keeps focus on the central issue of the young Lennon's torn emotional life, being raised by his aunt and only finding out his mother lived locally when in his teens.

Aaron Johnson in the lead plays a young, cocky, charming and hot tempered teenager rather than a nascent rock star. His aunt Mimi runs her lower middle class home strictly but not coldly. Kristen Scott-Thomas presents a woman containing a tide of heartache and disappointment by providing her ward with a clean home that is welcoming if not always warm.

Anne Marie Duff plays Julia, Lennon's mother whom he hasn't seen since a traumatic day of his childhood. She's wild and warm and constant fun offering all the freedom in the world to her newly returned son as long as she doesn't have to take too much responsibility for him. Duff shows the danger in the fun, allowing a teetering instability into every scene she's in. And mention ought to be afforded David Morrisey for playing Julia's second husband, tolerant of the upheaval his young family suffers at the entrance of the intruder to the point of formlessness. His anger is palpable but so is his concern for her sanity. He's not soft, he's just good at walking on eggshells. It's a strong and thankless performance.

Just as the scouse accents are not overdone for these people between the proletariat and bourgeoisie who are attempting to step above mucky commonality, the Beatles content is so understated that when asked for a reminder of the group's name toward the end, John simply answers: "would you care?" No B word there. Similarly, there isn't a single instance of a title of a Beatle song nor any line from one inserted into the dialogue. Showing the gates of Strawberry Field or the Penny Lane street sign are blissfully permissable.

Lennon's epiphany on seeing Elvis on screen is believable, he doesn't explode but you can see he's riveted and calculating at the same time. When he gathers a gang of boys to light up in the loo at school, calling them to be his group, he's not so inspired as starting somewhere. The scene rings with schoolboy excitement and derision and, as with some later moments in the story illustrates something very accurate about bands forming and managing their membership: people are chosen by personality and fit over ability.

I've never been in a band nor ever observed one that recruited someone just because they played well. Come on, you're between 16 and about 25, you're playing some version of rock music; you are not going to get anyone who's too old or nerdy or straight or socially or culturally wrong, regardless of how well they play. There is nothing reprehensible about this, it's the way of the genre and it says less about rock being a musically clueless music but one that can easily be built from little: to this day I'd rather hear Jonathon Richman than Genesis for that very reason. When the significantly younger Paul McCartney plays a word and riff perfect version of 20 Flight Rock it's impressive but he's encouraged more for his pluck. He fits. It's a good scene as it goes against the grain of the rock bio without a breath of spite.

Scenes of the Quarrymen playing on stage are far slicker than they would have been but the point of them is to show Lennon's commitment and showmanship. Depicting the cold and uncomfortable reality of a rock gig at that level runs contrary to purpose of the film. The ones in Backbeat are a lot truer to experience (if heightened for fiction) because it *is* about the young Beatles. This is a film about a teenager fighting his way out of a damagingly confusing situation. One way he finds to do this is through a door he has little trouble opening.

You could say that this didn't have to be about Lennon at all but that it is is important. It has a curious effect of deconstructing the pop god. Soberingly it might remind viewer's of the turbulent mind that pointed a pistol at him in 1980 and squeezed its trigger.



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