Nowhere Boy
Sony Pictures // R // $28.95 // January 25, 2011
Review by Preston Jones | posted January 19, 2011
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Graphical Version
The Movie

Is it possible the Beatles are beginning to feel a little picked over? It seems as though there's no end to the various angles of re-telling the same mythic rise to global superstardom, whether it's a re-release of the band's albums themselves, or tell-all books, or documentaries clinging to a bit of newly found and never released footage. That's to say nothing of the steady stream of fictional films that take a stab at crawling inside one of the most significant musical acts of the 20th century -- last year alone, thanks to what would've been John Lennon's 70th birthday, the public was washed anew in Beatlephilia, with freshly remastered collections, new books and documentaries about the man, his life and his role in the Beatles.

Add to that ever-growing heap of nostalgic product director Sam Taylor-Wood's Nowhere Boy, a fictionalized look back at Lennon's turbulent childhood. Starring Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass) as the fiery, hurt Liverpudlian and working from a Matt Greenhalgh screenplay (he made his screenwriting debut with 2007's Control), the film attempts to trace the roots of Lennon's raw nerves and often emotionally fraught songwriting. That Nowhere Boy only succeeds intermittently is all the more frustrating, particularly in light of the few things it does do well.

By now, especially for those who've kept a close eye on Beatles lore all these years, the tale is well-known: Abandoned by his mother Julia at a young age, Lennon was taken in by his strict aunt Mimi and raised until he shoved off for art school and, beyond that, a role in reshaping pop culture forever. Nowhere Boy, which amusingly bills itself as "the untold story of John Lennon and the creation of the Beatles," doesn't stray from the bones of the narrative, positioning Julia (Anne-Marie Duff, doing what she can with a one-note role) and Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas, likewise) as nothing less than the opposite poles of life itself, warring over the soul of a boy they both love. It's a pitched struggle, as Lennon desperately wants to settle down with his free-spirited, rock 'n' roll-loving mother, even as he knows he needs the more conservative guidance of his patrician aunt. A reconciliation between all three appears imminent, until it is cruelly cut short.

Into this domestic back-and-forth, the filmmakers introduce -- who else? -- a young Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster, whom most probably remember from Love Actually), who seizes upon Lennon's love of music and spurs him on to solidify the Quarrymen and, later, the Beatles. But here's the funny thing: The music actually intrudes on the drama, which is a shocking thing to say about a movie based on the life of one-fourth of the Beatles. Although it's meant to feel like an escape for Lennon, a place where everything makes sense, it also drains a lot of energy from the film. Although a lot of the exchanges between family members often feel ham-handed, they are nevertheless where the trio of lead actors find tenuous toe-holds and attempt to burst to life.

Taylor-Wood, making her feature film debut here, keeps things moving along at a respectable clip, although an overreliance on flashy "dream" sequences feels a bit jarring. She's not helped by Greenhalgh's half-baked screenplay -- at one point, a sobbing Lennon actually says the words, vis--vis a dead character, "She's never coming back!"; it's straight outta Lifetime -- and its infatuation with carefully threading signposts to Lennon's future into what should be a more straightforward drama. The cast doesn't fare much better. Although critics have waxed rhapsodic about Johnson's work as Lennon, he's passable, largely because he doesn't sound a thing like the man vocally (his Liverpool accent is pretty wobbly too). And he's also given to peculiar facial twitches while "singing," something anyone who looks at even a snippet of the real Lennon performing would notice is off. Duff and Scott acquit themselves well, considering the material, with Duff making the most of her underwritten role. Sangster doesn't even try as McCartney; the accent, faking his bass duties or doing anything besides taking a punch in the face really well.

It all adds up to make Nowhere Boy a frustrating experience, a film that aims for depths it never comes close to achieving. There's genuine pathos to be found in Lennon's story, in particular, as he wrestled with pleasing two very different mother figures in his life, and wound up being alienated from them both. That absence clearly fuels some of his most wrenching work -- his intense solo track "Mother" plays out over the credits -- but that animating passion is glimpsed all too infrequently here.

The DVD

The Video:

Nowhere Boy arrives on DVD with a 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. Befitting a recently created production, the film, which does tend to blow out its visuals (a nod to the golden, halcyon days of youth?), nevertheless looks largely blemish-free, clean and clear and well-defined. The colors are nicely saturated and there are no discernible flaws to distract from watching Lennon scream and cry at his relatives.

The Audio:

The English Dolby Digital 5.1 track springs to action during the scant few concert sequences, as well as nicely reproducing some of the vintage source music sprinkled throughout the film. Otherwise, it has little to do beyond conveying the heated exchanges of dialogue with clarity and detail, as well as filling in the surrounds with nice, atmospheric touches. It's a pleasantly immersive track that, as with the visual end of things, betrays nothing distracting, in keeping with the film's relatively recent creation. Optional English subtitles are included.

The Extras:

Two deleted scenes (presented in anamorphic widescreen) are included, playable separately or all together for an aggregate of three minutes, 56 seconds. The seven minute, 46 second featurette "The Making of Nowhere Boy" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) explores the filmmakers' journey from concept to completion, while the 13 minute, nine second featurette "Nowhere Boy: The Untold Story of John Lennon and the Creation of the Beatles" (presented in anamorphic widescreen) goes into more detail about the man himself. Trailers round out the disc.

Final Thoughts:

Is it possible the Beatles are beginning to feel a little picked over? It seems as though there's no end to the various angles of re-telling the same mythic rise to global superstardom, whether it's a re-release of the band's albums themselves, or tell-all books, or documentaries clinging to a bit of newly found and never released footage. That's to say nothing of the steady stream of fictional films that take a stab at crawling inside one of the most significant musical acts of the 20th century -- last year alone, thanks to what would've been John Lennon's 70th birthday, the public was washed anew in Beatlephilia, with freshly remastered collections, new books and documentaries about the man, his life and his role in the Beatles. Add to that ever-growing heap of nostalgic product director Sam Taylor-Wood's Nowhere Boy, a fictionalized look back at Lennon's turbulent childhood. Starring Aaron Johnson (Kick-Ass) as the fiery, hurt Liverpudlian and working from a Matt Greenhalgh screenplay (he made his screenwriting debut with 2007's Control), the film attempts to trace the roots of Lennon's raw nerves and often emotionally fraught songwriting. That Nowhere Boy only succeeds intermittently is all the more frustrating, particularly in light of the few things it does do well. Rent it.



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