'Tis the job of the biopic to psychoanalyze its famous subject and sketch connective lines between the past and the future, the personal and the public. In tackling the subject of John Lennon's formative years, "Nowhere Boy" is no exception.
In turning life into drama, screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh ("Control") and first-time feature director Sam Taylor-Wood cannot resist a certain amount of myth-making, and if this is a "kitchen sink" drama, the sink comes across as rather well-scrubbed. But as a broad-strokes account of Lennon's complicated family dynamic, trouble-making youth and first tentative steps toward rock stardom, "Nowhere Boy" succeeds as both entertainment and a rumination on the roots of one man's nascent artistry.
Spanning 1955 to 1960, the story kicks off with Lennon (Aaron Johnson of "Kick-Ass") losing his beloved Uncle George (David Threlfall) and facing life alone with his somewhat priggish Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas). The familial shift prompts the teenage Lennon to reconnect with his affectionate but erratic mother Julia (Anne Marie-Duff of "The Last Station"). Something of a war of wills ensues between Mimi and Julia, with the attentions and loyalty of John at stake. When all is said and done, John will have faced the ugly truth about the splintering of his family a decade earlier, and experienced the fresh hell of another family tragedy.
It isn't all uncomfortable psychodrama for Lennon, who we see enthusiastically raising hell and even more enthusiastically embracing the cultural arrival of Elvis by adopting a new style and procuring a guitar. In addition to playing and singing, Johnson ably radiates Lennon's brash bravado at school and his scarcely concealed, raw need for love and approval from his mother figures. Taylor-Wood and her actors also show a sensitivity to the excited but wary friendship that develops, late in the picture, between Lennon and Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster), Lennon's life-long rival for attention.
For the sake of drama, Greenhalgh fudges facts when it comes to Lennon's relationships with Julia (who was a relatively constant presence in John's young life) and the protective Mimi (who, though skeptical of John's musical vocation, seems not to have been as severe and combative as her screen equivalent). And Beatlemaniacs will quibble over details like which song Lennon's first band the Quarrymen played in their debut.
But the music adds an underlying excitement and possibility unique to a rock star's coming-of-age story. Here's John learning from his mother how to play the banjo, and laying down his first song, "Hello Little Girl." And here are the Quarrymen -- including future Beatles Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison (Sam Bell) -- recording "In Spite of All the Danger," with Lennon taking lead vocal.
Though Lennon didn't write the song, the filmmakers encourage Johnson to give it an extra-soulful vocal informed by John's personal tragedy. After 90 minutes of family-style angst, the Beatle-esque tune, and an authentic Lennon demo cut under the end credits, provides a welcome one-two punch of musical catharsis, as well as the somewhat cold comfort that Lennon will get what he wished for -- rock stardom -- and, along with it, adult travails.