John Lennon’s illustrious career has been well documented; and it’d be hard to find a person that didn’t know something about the singer/songwriter’s work with The Beatles, has heard none of his solo songs, or knows nothing about his relationship with The Beatles co-founder Paul McCartney, or his marriage to Yoko Ono, his peace-seeking nature, and isn’t aware of his tragic and untimely death; but Sam Taylor-Wood’s (Love You More) film, Nowhere Boy, ignore almost all of that, and focusses solely on Lennon’s teenage years; beginning during his school years, before he even had his first experiences with rock & roll.
The story does explore some of the moves that John (Aaron Johnson, Kick-Ass) made in order to set him on the path towards becoming one of the most successful musicians of all time, and shows some of the things that influenced him along the way, however the main focus of the story is really on the drama of his home-life; particularly revolving around the two most dominant, and formative, women his in life during his teenage years; his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas, Keeping Mum), and his estranged mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff, Shameless).
It begins with the death of John’s Uncle George (David Threlfall, Shameless), which subsequently leads to John meeting the mother he has never known, and becoming fascinated by her relatively ‘free’ nature, as her fun, happy-go-lucky, outlook is in stark contrast to that of his Aunt Mimi (the woman who has raised him since he was a small child), who seems very reserved and strict (even refusing to cry at the death of her husband, and telling John that he shouldn’t do so either), and likes her classical music; so when Julia introduces the impressionable John to rock & roll records, and films of Elvis Presley, he naturally becomes fascinated, and alters his appearance to mimic the famous rockstar.
Julia also teaches John to play the banjo (when he’s suspended from school), and it’s from then on that he decides that he’s going to become a star like Elvis, and forms and band (that would be known as the Quarrymen) with a bunch of his school friends (who were chosen simply for being his friends, or because they had access to certain instruments, and not because they held any degree of talent); with the backstory focussing on the musical element, and chronicling the evolution of the band into what would become The Beatles, including meeting a young Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster, Love Actually) after one of The Quarrymen’s gigs, forming a strong musical partnership with him, and thoroughly honing their craft; becoming more and more popular as time passed.
However, with music being the background element to this story, the majority of the drama plays out with Lennon getting to know his mother, attempting to learn about his past; mainly focussing on what happened to his father, and why his mother abandoned him and left him with his aunt; and being at the center of a number of confrontations between the two women, moving in and out of their houses, and not really knowing where his loyalties lie.
In the end, Nowhere Boy is a very touching tale, that didn’t really need to be about John Lennon; because, despite the fact that it’s all based on truth, this could have been a story about anyone, and worked have been just as touching, and worked just as well, if it were a simple family tale about anybody else; meaning that you don’t have to be a Lennon fan at all, in order to like the film, and it’s those people that know less about the singer’s past that may get the most out of this movie, by learning about some of the things that went into forming the character that was so often in the media.
It’s also rather strange for a film of this sort (a biopic picture) to have a main character that isn’t totally idolized; as usually in these sorts of films the main character is presented as all but flawless; whereas here, John is presented as a rather contemptible, utterly pompous, adolescent, for about three quarters of the film, and is a character who it is, at times, very difficult to like.
But despite being difficult to like, he is still very compelling to watch, and Aaron Johnson did a fantastic job of bringing Lennon’s character to the screen, complete with all of his flaws, which Aaron pulls of exceptionally well; being utterly convincing throughout the picture, and clearly deserving the Independent Film Award for Best Actor (for which he was nominated but failed to win)
The supporting cast also do an excellent job, as Ann-Marie Duff and Kristin Scott Thomas both earned nominations at this year’s BAFTA Awards for their performances as John’s mother and aunt; both exhibiting the full range of emotions needed to deal with the dramatic family roller-coaster that made up a large portion of Lennon’s life at that point, and both being totally convincing, no matter what their character is doing. Thomas Sangster, who played Paul McCartney, is also fairly good, although it becomes abundantly clear in several scenes that it either isn’t him singing, or that the dubbing isn’t all that well done, and he always looks just a little too scared (it’s also fairly difficult to stop reverting and thinking of him as the little lad that was Liam Neeson’s son in Love Actually), but overall he does a decent enough job.
In the end, Nowhere Boy isn’t the full and comprehensive biopic that Lennon fans have been waiting so long to see; it only covers a pretty small (yet obviously tremendously important) part of his teenage years, barely explores the career of The Beatles, and doesn’t touch on his later years, or death, at all; but what it does show, is his first encounters with rock & roll music, the things that set him on the path to greatness, and it touches on some of the lesser known elements of his past, meaning it’s a film that not only Lennon fans will love, but that anyone can sit back and enjoy; as you don’t have to know anything about him to appreciate how powerfully emotional the family side of this story is; and will appreciate the chance to learn a little about a legend, whilst watching a very compelling tale.
Nowhere Boy comes to DVD with a very solid picture transfer that contains some fairly impressive textures, despite the level of detail not being the highest possible; overall the detail level is much more than acceptable, but can’t hope to compete with high definition releases.
The film’s colours tend to be fairly subdued, although that is a stylistic choice made in order to ensure that the look of the movie fits with the time in which it is set, and despite this they are still very well represented, and always natural looking, with some fairly impressive contrast throughout. Black levels are also suitably deep, and inky, and the actors fleshtones are stop-on throughout the film.
Nowhere Boy will undoubtedly look much better on Blu-ray than DVD, but the transfer that has been given to the DVD is more than acceptable; as it has no obvious problems to speak of; and is sure to satisfy anyone that watches the film.
The sound for Nowehere Boy is even more impressive; coming via a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, it accurately reproduces all of the characters dialogue, making it easy to hear and understand (it will also be clear to anyone from Liverpool, and most other British people, that the Liverpudlian accent has been intentionally toned down to make it easier to follow) everything that is being said.
There is also a nice amount of ambient noise present, which always sounds well placed and realistic, and added with the films brilliant soundtrack (which features some of the earliest songs that Lennon performed with The Quarrymen and The Beatles; including the first song he wrote; ‘Hello Little Girl’); which effectively fills the soundfield, and utilizes some subtle yet impressive bass; makes for a thoroughly immersive, and extremely well crafted mix. It is by no means a mix that will stun viewers, as it has no real scenes that stand out (there are no car chases or gun fights to be seen), but all of the sounds that it does have, are represented extremely well.
Nowhere Boy comes to DVD with a whole host of special features that include a Making Of featurette; which has everyone from the director, screenwriter (Matt Greenhalgh, Control), and actors, giving interviews about the film, and saying how they became interested in the project, although for a making of it doesn’t contain much information on production at all (though it is interesting to hear Anne-Marie Duff compare Lennon to Jesus); and a feature called ‘Lennon’s Liverpool’; which is surprisingly interesting, as it contains an interview with Matt Greenhalgh discussing the writing process (visiting the locations, learning how to write like people from Liverpool would have spoken back then), and giving a tour of some of the real locations that John Lennon used to know as a child (including his house, school, and music hall), as well as containing a few anecdotes, and interviews with members of The Quarrymen, which despite it’s short length (it only lasts a couple of minutes) make it both fast and informative, and extremely fun and interesting to watch.
There is also a selection of deleted scenes; consisting of two emotional scenes, and two alternate musical numbers, that were probably rightly cut from the final piece, but are an interesting watch nonetheless (and having their deletion explained by Sam Taylor Wood was also a good decision, as viewers can really see why some things get left out); and an extended interview with Sam Taylor Wood; discussing everything from how she moved away from short, arty, films into something more mainstream, how the script got to her, and how she went about choosing actors, and how the actors were able to play their characters so well; which is valuable information for someone who wants to learn more about the film, but does feel a little dragged out, and become rather dull, rather quickly (especially when considering that the most interesting sections can be seen in shorter clips during the other features).
Other than that, there is a very interesting and informative feature all about recreating Lennon and The Quarrymen; explaining why it was more important to get good actors rather than lookalikes, the voice-work needed to emulate the sound of the characters real-life counterparts, and how everyone really had to learn to play their instruments (including Thomas Sangster having to learn to play the guitar left-handed); and an extremely comprehensive, and well made, featurette about filming the most pivotal and emotional scene in the film (a family argument between John, his mother, and his aunt); showcasing everything from period set-dressing and storyboarding, to creating the musical score, choreographing the scene, and editing in post-production; which actually turns out to be more informative, and easier to watch, than the Making Of.
Added together with the theatrical trailer (there are also previews for other films once the disc first starts playing) and photo gallery, there is quite a wealth of features (especially for a British production) that explore exactly how the film was made, in easily digest-able chunks, and even gives a bit of background on the real John Lennon. A thoughtful collection that should please anyone who enjoyed the film, and wants to learn a little bit more about it (it’s just a shame that the making of featurette wasn’t as detailed as the scene breakdown).
The Bottom line:
Nowhere boy might not be the fullest account of John Lennon’s life; and anybody looking for a history lesson about The Beatles or Lennon’s post-Beatles life is definitely looking in the wrong place; because what Nowhere Boy is, is a dramatization (but a pretty accurate one from all accounts) about some of the most formative years in the young John Lennon’s life; following his exploits as he’s introduced to rock & roll, decides to form a band, and struggles to find out about his past and where he belongs; getting pulled back and forward between his aunt and mother.
The cast are all top notch (the three most important actors have all been nominated for multiple awards for their performances in this movie), and the plot is so well written and emotionally engaging that it provides for some truly compelling viewing, and doesn’t even really have to be about Lennon; it would have been just as powerful a story if it were a fictional account of any young boy; and as the picture and audio quality are also both more than adequate, it all makes for a very decent DVD release, especially considering that the bonus features are a well made, and easy to watch collection, of fun and informative featurettes.
In the end, this film is basically an emotional family tale; so if you aren’t a fan of heartfelt dramas, then Nowhere Boy probably isn’t for you, but if you like emotional, family-based, stories, then it’ll be a film you’ll be sure to enjoy; you don’t have to be a Lennon fan, or even know anything about him or his music, to appreciate this film at it’s core, but it’s also worth a look if you’re interested in learning a bit more about his background, and should be a film that his fans will definitely enjoy. Nowhere Boy isn’t one for action or romance fans, but is the real story of how a musical legend set out on the road to greatness, and should be watched by not only fans of his, but anyone who appreciates watching a well told story with a good deal of heart.