What were they then? That need to know about people's formative years has stoked industries from Freudian psychoanalysis to Facebook, and seemingly half the recent movies from a Hollywood largely bereft of inspiration. Superman, Batman, Wolverine, Anakin Skywalker, Hannibal Lecter, Bugs Bunny, Butch and Sundance and the A-Team have all been subject to origin stories. Now we get Nowhere Boy, which depicts the teenage John Lennon as he wrestles with family demons and forms his first group, the Quarrymen, soon bringing in Paul McCartney and George Harrison. The main points of interest in this middling drama are its star turn by Aaron Johnson (last seen trying to kick ass in Kick-Ass) as Lennon and the connection of its hero not so much to music but to the Angry Young Men of the British drama, novels and movies of the late 1950s and early '60s the time when the Beatles were formed.
Lennon, killed on his doorstep at 40, would have been 70 this Saturday, Oct. 9, when the New York Society for Ethical Culture will host an evening of his music with guests Pete Seeger, Marshall Crenshaw and three of the original Quarrymen. Two weeks ago, the high-polish tribute band the Fab Faux played uncanny covers of Beatles songs at Radio City Music Hall; on Nov. 12 Jackson Browne, Patti Smith and others will pay homage at New York's Beacon Theatre. These are bound to be hagiographic celebration-exploitations (to say nothing of the $200 box set of Lennon's solo material now on sale), a time for good old music and misty recollections of youth the same impulses that, over the past three decades, have spurred such early-John movie biopics as The Birth of the Beatles, The Hours and Times and Backbeat.
As a movie subject, Lennon enjoys the advantage of having died young and violently; simply summoning his image automatically evokes poignancy for a life that was both amply fulfilled and tragically cut short. But any origins story of a famous person, real or fictional, lacks the ultimate suspense of wondering what will happen at the end. We know what happened to John and Paul and George, and eventually Ringo: they were the most loved, admired, innovative and attractive figures in the popular culture of their time. Most Lennonists also know something of his gnarled early Liverpool years: he was raised by his aunt Mimi after being given up by his troubled mother Julia, who died after being struck by a car when John was 18.
The screenwriter, Matt Greenhalgh (who also wrote the Joy Division movie Control), sees John as suffering from the same social virus as Jimmy Porter, who, in John Osborne's play and film Look Back in Anger, railed bitterly against the British class system (while treating his wife and his mistress shamefully), and Colin Smith, the reform-school rebel in Alan Sillitoe's story and film The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner. John's prison is his home, where straitlaced Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas, eschewing her usual glamorous hauteur for print dresses and an ironing board) editorializes disapproval of John with every frown, stare and aggrieved puff on her cigarette. The only life in the household is that of Uncle George (David Threlfall), who buys John a harmonica and hooks up a radio speaker upstairs so he and the lad can listen to The Goon Show. George soon after dies of a heart attack, and when John cries at the news, Mimi stiffly remonstrates, "Please, let's not be silly."
Her opposite number is Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), a free spirit with flirtatious airs; she vamps a stranger at the soda shop but is more desperate for the affection of the son from whom she's been estranged. She kisses his hand, demands a peck on her cheek, tells him moonily, "You're my dreeeeam." Julia also introduces him to American rock and rockabilly, less for the movie than as an emblem of her courtship. "You know what it means, rock 'n' roll?" she whispers warmly. "Sex." From this point on, the two women will wage their war for John through music. Julia teaches him to play a banjo; Mimi buys John a guitar and sells it when his grades fail; Julia buys him a new one and attends his concerts. One woman represents the propriety John needs to escape, the other the underlying danger in unfettered emotion. John has to choose between the two tendencies or find a blend of them both, which he would do in his music.
The Julia-Mimi schematics make for heavy going in the first half of the film, and the viewer feels positively paroled when the 15-year-old Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster, with the same seraphic poise as Chris Colfer's Kurt on Glee) shows up. The boy with two mothers meets the boy with none Paul's mother Mary had died of cancer in 1956 and, in the film's most vital and likable section, gets tips on new chords and obscure songs from the new prodigy. "You don't seem the rock 'n' roll kinda guy," John tells Paul. "Oh," he replies, "'cause you mean I don't go 'round smashin' things up and actin' like a dick? It's the music. That's it, it's just the music."
John, whatever family traumas may have shaped his behavior, is a dick. He's called that in the movie almost as often as people in The Social Network refer to Mark Zuckerberg as a prick. John exposes himself to schoolgirls his age, rides prone on the top of a bus, smacks his bandmates, generally acting like a lout. And whatever bad things he does, he can get away with them, because soon he'll be a star. ("Oh, why couldn't God make me Elvis?" he desperately asks Julia, to which she replies, all too presciently, "Because he was saving you for John Lennon.") The later successes of Lennon and Zuckerberg effectively validate their misbehavior: one became a billionaire, the other a Beatle. And never mind that, not in biopics but in real life, rancorous kids were likely to be consigned to more ordinary fates: at a desk, behind a checkout counter or even in jail.
This is the feature-film directorial debut of Sam Taylor-Wood, the photographer who made a splash in the British art scene in 1993 with a series of pictures in which she and Henry Bond mimicked the Pieta pose of Lennon and Yoko Ono in the famous pictures Annie Leibovitz took of the couple not long before John was shot dead. Given her avant-garde reputation, Nowhere Boy is a surprisingly conventional film adroit at weaving a time-and-place mood but way too rigid dramatically to bring the Lennon family dynamic to life until a big, quite effective confrontation scene toward the end. Then it slips back into cliché as John plays peacemaker to Julia and Mimi.
The reason to see Nowhere Boy is the charismatic Johnson, who effortlessly nails Lennon's strut, anger and sensitivity. Anybody seeing the movie could surely spot a star in the making. Taylor-Wood did. Forty-two when the film was made, she left her husband and conceived a child by Johnson, then 19; Wylda Rae Johnson was born this July 7. The love story of a middle-aged woman and a star of the future young enough to be her son isn't that a fascinating story? Someone should make a movie about it.