A spirited teenager, curious, sharp and funny, growing up in the shattered city of Liverpool. Two extraordinary sisters tussle for his love – Mimi, the formidable aunt who raised him from the age of five and Julia, the spirited mother who gave him up to Mimi’s care. Yearning for a normal family, John escapes into art and the new music flooding in from the US. His fledgling genius finds a kindred spirit in the young Paul McCartney. But just as John’s new life begins, the truth about his past leads to a tragedy he would never escape.


Biopics that help define a much-loved talent have an inherent drama that usually makes them watchable, but overcoming the conventions of the genre can be tough. Despite a sweetly eccentric turn by Ann Marie Duff and some true-life twists that screenwriters couldn’t make up, the life of the young John Lennon as glimpsed in Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy seems pretty much the same as that of the young Ray Charles, or the young Loretta Lynn, or the young Richie Valens, etc, etc.

From cheeky school lad to posturing Teddy boy to unique musical talent, Aaron Johnson transforms through the key developmental stages of John Lennon’s life with tremendous skill.

Cinematically, that is not necessarily a bad thing. Taylor Hackford’s Ray (2004), Michael Apted’s Coalminer’s Daughter (1980) and Luis Valdez’s La Bamba (1987) are just three random examples of the musical biopic (throw in Amadeus, The Buddy Holly Story, Walk The Line, Rhapsody in Blue, The Great Caruso, Control or the recent Sister Smile, just to get you started) - all fine films that featured star-making lead performances, and Nowhere Boy is no different. From cheeky school lad to posturing Teddy boy to unique musical talent, Aaron Johnson transforms through the key developmental stages of John Lennon’s life with tremendous skill.

The central conflict in the film exists between John’s adopted guardian, his stoic Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas in fine form) and his real-life mother, the wildly creative but irresponsible Julia (Duff), who abandoned John into Mimi’s care when he was a toddler. Reintroduced to Julia and her hedonistic existence at a point in his life when the young man was ready to break free of suburban stillness, John embraces both the good (guitar lessons and painting) and bad (skipping school and acting up) influences that Julia represents.

John moves back and forth between Mimi and Julia (whose houses oddly seem to be only a paddock-width apart) until tensions boil to the surface and the dirty family history is laid bare. This clash of wills and beliefs is the films dramatic high point, with all three actors dodging and weaving each other, verbally and literally, in the tight confines of Mimi’s terrace house living room. From that point on, the film ebbs and flows with developments that waiver in intensity and relevance as it tries, awkwardly at times, to wrap things up.

Integral to John’s growth and running concurrently with the family plotline is the formation of the personalities that will lead to The Beatles. Like Johnson’s Lennon, Thomas Sangster’s Paul McCartney and Sam Bell’s George Harrison don’t much look like their real-life characters, but the interaction between the trio, and in particular the instant chemistry between Lennon and McCartney, is convincingly captured.

So...a poor kid with family troubles rises above his lot in life and makes it as a star. Sound familiar...?

There is obviously a great deal of detail that separates one musical biopic from the other: the recreation of the period setting (which is under-utilised in Nowhere Boy; much of the action takes place indoors); the tunes that have made the subject a star (non-existent in Nowhere Boy; they hadn’t been written yet); and the spot-on casting in influential roles (which Nowhere Boy does get wonderfully right – as mentioned, the film comes alive when Ann Marie Duff’s Julia is in full flight).

One perplexing element is the reined-in visual style that first-time feature director Sam Taylor-Wood applies. It is almost as if she is so staunchly determined to make a 'serious drama’, she refuses to give any of the musical moments or flashes of humour a pulse of their own. A renowned photographer and conceptual artist, Taylor-Wood has displayed an eye for the surreal and confronting with her 'Still Life’ series of shorts and 'Death Valley’, her contribution to the 2006 erotic anthology film Destricted. But Nowhere Boy contains no sign of an adventurous directorial spirit and will disappoint fans who would have had high hopes for an 'out-there’ debut feature.

Scoring a biopic lead has meant big things for the likes of Joaquin Phoenix and Jamie Foxx in recent years, though they had the good fortune to play stars at the peak of their talent and nadir of their personal demons. Aaron Johnson doesn’t get much of a chance to create the stage persona of John Lennon, but he resonates regardless. Though never quite the sum of its parts, Nowhere Boy is nevertheless a well-made, engaging film that honours the legend and legacies of John Lennon.