Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood
UK, 2009, 98 minutes
Cast: Aaron Johnson, Anne-Mare Duff, Kristen Scott Thomas, Thomas Brodie Sangster
Music by: Alison Goldfrapp
Capsule: Beatles/Lennon fans, see this movie!!! It's required viewing.
As diehard Beatles fans, Amy and I rushed out to catch this biopic (based on the memoirs of John Lennon's half-sister Julia Baird, The Private John Lennon) of the young John Lennon when it opened yesterday at The Charles. We were not disappointed - it's a great drama that (full disclosure) moved us to tears several times. Which is to say, it's a totally emo experience and an acting showcase for Anne-Marie Duff (Shameless), the always excellent Kristen Scott Thomas, and "newcomer" Aaron Johnson (who's been acting since age 6 but didn't make a blip on the stateside radar until this year's Kick-Ass), though most of the buzz surrounding this film centered on the Johnson lad's affair with - and impregnation of - his married-with-children director, the noted photographer/conceptual artist/(two-time) cancer survivor Sam Taylor-Wood. (The couple have a daughter named Wylda Rae.) All I know is, the timing was perfect, with the film opening in the U.S. the week of what would have been Lennon's 70th birthday (October 9, 1940).
All He Needs Is Love
And I also know that I have to disagree with Geoff Berkshire who, in that day's b free daily, rightly called the film "an admirably executed history lesson for Beatles/Lennon fans" but wrongly added "Unfortunately, it zeroes in on the time that's usually the dullest - a celebrity's life pre-fame." Au contraire, mon frere! The whole Beatlemania rise to fame and acclaim bit's been done - and done to death, at that. Everything any Beatles fan needs to know about John Lennon comes from this formative period, especially how his sarcastic/abrasive personality was spawned by the impact on his life of the two dominant females in his childhood – his Aunt Mimi (Mimi Smith, née Stanley, played here by Kristen Scott Thomas) and the mother who abandoned him, Julia (Julia Stanley, played by Anne-Marie Duff). Once he had achieved fame with the Beatles, Lennon famously called Mimi every week of his life, while his mother is directly or indirectly referenced in numerous Beatles songs, from the lovely "Julia" (perhaps the most beautiful song John ever wrote) to the therapeutic "Mother" (with its telling lines, "You had me, but I never had you/I wanted you, but you didn't want me"). John's first son, Julian, was even named for Julia, whose memory haunted him his whole life. So, to call this period dull is to be dull-witted.
Berkshire also thought Johnson's performance as Lennon was a case of sending a boy to do a man's job, but again I disagree. I thought he was spot-on. Amy's only criticism was that Aunt Mimi's famous line about John's career choice wasn't included: "Music's all right John, but you'll never make a living out of it." (Yeah, right - tell that to professional widow/business manager Yoko!)
Aunt Mimi and John Lennon
Rock Around the Clock
I read that Taylor-Wood had an initial panic attack when he was asked to helm her debut feature film about such a larger-than-life figure as the iconic Lennon.
Sam Taylor Wood: "I thought, 'I'm in too deep and if I mess this up I'm just never gonna make a film again,' and I went into a panic. I got into the car and said, 'I just have to call these producers and pull out. I got into the car and I put the key into the ignition and Lennon's voice came straight out of the radio and it was [the Lennon song] "Starting Over." It was one of those moments where I thought it was a sign: 'OK I'm gonna do it.'"
Amy later remarked that there were a number of moments that day of similar synchronicity and serendipity. Immediately after the movie, we sat in a Fell's Point bar and the first song we heard was "Daytripper," followed by Amy's titular theme song "Amy" by Pure Prairie League (alas, we both share name songs we detest; mine is, of course, The Who's "Tommy," though Twinkle did a bad-boy "Tommy" song I love!) Then, reading about director Sam Taylor-Wood, we learned that she was a Buzzcocks fan who had previously directed the short film Love You More (2007), written by playwright and Arsenal football supporter Patrick Marber (whose screenplays include Closer, Asylum, and the Oscar-nominated Notes On a Scandal) - which makes sense because Marber also penned the story "Peter Shelley," which is included in Speaking With the Angel, a short story collection edited by fellow writer, music lover, and Gunners supporter Nick Hornby. (Love You More features a cameo by Buzzcocks founder Pete Shelley!)
It all tied together! Amy liked the Buzzcocks connection, as she's currently added the Mancunian punk rockers to her Completist Short List of bands she must obsessively collect everything by (a list that also includes Elvis Costello, Queen, and XTC). Oh, and here's another rock royalty connection: Nowhere Boy lost out at Britain's BAFTA awards to a film by another director with rock 'n' roll connections - Moon by David Bowie's son Duncan Jones (formerly Zowie Bowie).
Watch Love You More clip:
Boy, You Have To Carry That Weight
After the screening, Charles Theater manager David asked us what we thought of the film. We gave him the two thumbs up sign, and he then asked how we thought it stacked up against the other fictionalised Beatles movies. "Right at the top," I told him. I haven't seen everything, but of the seven films considered Beatles biopics - the Dick Clark-produced Birth of the Beatles (1979), the Broadway musical adaptation Beatlemania (1981), the Stu Sutcliffe-focused Backbeat (1994, starring Stephen Dorf as Stu and Sheryl Lee as Astrid Kircherr), The Hours and Times (from 1991 and focusing on Lennon's possibly homo-erotic relationship with Beatles manager Brian Epstein), Two of Us (the speculative 2000 "what if" made-for-TV movie helmed by Let It Be director Michael Lindsay-Hogg that imagined Aidan Quinn's McCartney making peace with Jared Harris' Lennon in the post-Beatles 1970s), and Lennon Naked (a 2010 made-for-BBC TV film that hasn't hit these shores yet) - I'd say it sets the standard. But then again, I missed The Hours and Times when it played The Charles, so must reserve judgement on that film.
Nowhere Boy inspired me to finally pick up and read Bob Spitz's mammoth, double-telephone-directory-length history of the Fab Four-and-More, The Beatles: The Biography, which Amy says is the best-ever Beatles bio. It's been sitting in my sprawling In Bin for several years now and, well, this movie reminded me that the time is right.
Nowhere Boy (Wikipedia)
Private John Lennon: The Untold Story from His Sister (Julia Baird)
Nowhere Boy trailer (YouTube)