Movie Review: Nowhere Boy (2009)
I kept waiting for it. Aunt Mimi’s line. One of the most famous in rock ‘n’ roll history. All together now:
The guitar’s all right, John, but you’ll never make a living from it.
The question is when. Will she say it after John's been suspended from school and she punishes him by selling his guitar? Nope. OK, what about after he buys it back again? Or when he's just playing it too loudly? Hey, maybe they’ll end with it! That would make sense. Good last line, since we know he’ll not only make a living with it, he’ll make history with it. But they don’t end that way, either. They end with John (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) telling Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) that he’s off to Hamburg with the lads and he’ll call her when he arrives. Then he’s out the door and down the street, and the soundtrack picks up on John Lennon’s “Mother” (“You had me/ But I never had you”), and ... credits.
Screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh (“Control”) and director Sam Taylor-Wood get a lot right, but I don’t know how they could’ve missed that one.
Actually they get a lot wrong, too.
Doesn’t have a point of view
Start with Paul. Please.
I like Thomas Brodie-Sangster. I liked him in “Love Actually” and “Game of Thrones.” He’s a good young actor. Cute, too. But he’s kind of spooky cute, while Paul was the epitome of cute: puppy-dog eyes, rosebud lips, a bit of an overbite. Plus Brodie-Sangster’s Paul is much too slight next to Taylor-Johnson’s John. Brodie-Sanster is actually a month older than Taylor-Johnson but he looks about five years younger. Paul was the most accomplished singer of the group, and they make him seem the least here. They make George (Sam Bell) seem more confident and outgoing than Paul. George.
But they get a lot right: Paul meeting John after a Quarrymen (skiffle) concert and impressing everyone because he knows the music and lyrics to Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.” George doing something similar on the back of the bus. They also do their best to make such moments seem ordinary rather than freighted with meaning. They’re not triumphant; they’re just another day.
Taylor-Johnson is a good actor, and there are times, particularly once he begins wearing the Clark Kent glasses with the leather jacket, where, boy, he looks a lot like John in that period: the rock ‘n’ roll John. At the same time, he won’t make anyone forget Ian Hart. And don’t they make him too nice for much of the movie? John was a tough SOB, and often a prick, and you get a bit of that at the end. You get the silly drawings and the silly wordplay (later described as “Joycean” by reviewers around the world), and you get a reference to Stu, as in Sutcliffe, John’s art student friend who died of a brain aneuryism in 1962. There’s a real effort to be historically accurate to John’s life in the years between 1955 and 1960. But too much is missing.
The movie is essentially a battle for John’s soul, or some such, between two sisters—the rowdy biological mother and the strict, steadfast aunt who raised him—and the big reveal is how and why Mimi wound up caring for him back in the early '40s, which is hardly a reveal at all. The movie’s great lesson is, “There’s just no point hating someone you love,” which is spoken by an 18-year-old John, wise before his years, but that wasn’t him. Not then anyway.
The real winner in the battle for John? Director Sam Taylor-Wood, who wound up marrying her leading man, 23 years her junior, and changing her name to Sam Taylor-Johnson. She's now directing “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
Knows not where it’s going to
To be fair, I would’ve killed for this movie 35 years ago. I was latching onto anything Beatlesish back then. Classmates were all into REO Speedwagon or the Knack, and I was all about the Beatles. I remember how excited I was when “The Birth of the Beatles” came to TV one Friday night. My first SIFF movie was “The Hours and Times,” a short, almost experimental film positing what might’ve happened between John and Brian Epstein during their Barcelona trip in ’63, and I saw “Backbeat,” a 1994 birth movie focusing on Stu Sutcliffe, in the theaters.
They're still not getting it right. “Nowhere Boy” is another forgettable movie about our most unforgettable band.