Story of an icon steers clear of the B-word

ON THE B-SIDE: Jonathan Barnes on Music

THERE’S a moment in the film Nowhere Boy, right at the end, when we nearly get to hear those two little words.

“Is this for the new group – what are they called again?”, John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi asks, when he announces he’s heading off to Hamburg with his bandmates.

“Do you care?” the cocky teenager shoots back, dryly. “Well,” she concedes. “They all sound the same to me.”

But that’s as close as the film gets to actually mentioning The Beatles.

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Neither does it feature any of the Fab Four’s music, although again it flirts with the idea. The opening scene of the film starts with the trademark, opening chord of Hard Day’s Night. But, after that famous “CLAAANG”, nothing.

Lennon’s voice can be heard at the end of the film, but the song – Mother – is from his post-Beatles, solo work.

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It’s a little trick, a gimmick, of course; keeping the name of world’s most revered and influential band out of proceedings, but you sense there is a point being made.

That being, you can still make a film about The Beatles, even after all the other dramatisations and documentaries that have made the Fab Four as ubiquitous on the big screen as Frankenstein or Dracula. There is still an angle you can attack, something new to offer, without falling back on Hamburg or the Cavern Club or screaming girls.

Director Sam Taylor-Wood and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh would probably argue that the film isn’t about The Beatles at all. It’s about John Lennon. John Lennon of The Quarrymen. But mostly John Lennon the mixed-up, coming-of-age teenager.

That’s a moot point – there’s a big Beatles-shaped reason why we’re interested in Lennon in the first place – but in most respects, Nowhere Boy manages to rise above becoming just another Fab Four film.

The narrative takes us through some of the most important, formative moments of the Beatles story – Lennon learning to play the guitar; his first group; meeting Paul McCartney; their first recording session – but its central plot is the relationship between Lennon, his aunt (the formidable Mimi) and his mother (the flaky, fun-loving Julia).

The normal rules of film don’t apply in biopics, of course. Most of those watching will be familiar enough with the subject to at least have a fair idea of how the story is going to end, so the focus switches to the storytelling, the acting, the portrayal, its relationship to the truth of its subject matter.

It’s on the last count that Nowhere Boy has already strayed into tricky ground. After reading the draft script, Sir Paul McCartney complained to Taylor-Wood that the depiction of Aunt Mimi was “too cruel”. It’s unclear whether this guidance was acted upon, although Mimi’s character (played by Kristin Scott-Thomas) does undergo a marked change during the course of the film, to the point where she’s quipping: “Hamburg? Humbug!”

Since its cinema release, Beatles enthusiasts have taken to the internet forums to argue about Aaron Johnson’s physical similarity to Lennon and just how well (or not) the young actor captures the essense of an icon, and the sarcastic wit that became such a trademark. Some have also questioned the rather fey portrayal of a 15-year-old Paul McCartney, who does look like he might be blown away by a stiff breeze, let alone the fearsome right hook he takes from Lennon at Julia’s wake.

I’m sure who wasn’t the only one who felt a touch uneasy at the burgeoning, tactile relationship between Lennon and his mother, into which all sorts of Oedipal analogies are quite obviously invited.

That Johnson, at 19 years old, is now expecting a child with 42-year-old Taylor-Wood comes as an interesting little footnote and parallel to the film, considering its central theme.

There are scenes and lines that have been introduced or embellished to help the flow of the film, of course, and I’d question just how cordially and neatly the two main women in Lennon’s life reconcile shortly before his mother’s tragic end.

But it’s clear Lennon loved both dearly, in different ways and for different reasons, and that shines through. You only have to listen to Julia, the Lennon-penned ballad on the Beatles’ White Album, to realise the regard in which he held his mother, and that must act as encouragement to Taylor-Wood and Greenhalgh that the sentiments of Nowhere Boy are just about right.

Is it accurate? You’d guess so, but it probably all depends on who you ask.

But the biggest advocation of Nowhere Boy is that it stands alone as a piece of story-telling. At times I almost, very nearly forgot it was all about The Beatles. And I think that’s the idea.

n Nowhere Boy is out on DVD on Monday.

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