I have finally – finally! – gotten around to watching Nowhere Boy, the 2009 film about the youth of John Lennon, and feel bound to report on it. In a nutshell, it is a pretty good movie, although overly romanticized. What it mostly did was raise thoughts about the appeals and pitfalls of making movies about real life rock and roll heroes. Rock stars, being who they are, lead dramatic lives, so the temptation to make films about them is huge. No exaggeration necessary – the drama just writes itself! The obvious downside is over-familiarity. You can take creative liberties with the life of a historical figure who died centuries ago and no besides history buffs knows much about anyway, but not so much with an icon whose story everyone is intimately familiar with and who may even still be alive. (SPOILER ALERT: John Lennon is not still alive.)
There have been multiple movies about The Beatles, the earliest of which starred the actual Beatles in a thinly fictionalized mockumentary of their lives. I have, for the most part, studiously avoided any movies about The Beatles not starring actual Beatles. In fact, this may be the first one, not counting satirical portrayals such as The Rutles (which, come to think of it, did feature an actual Beatle.) (It was Beatle George.) The main problem with movies about The Beatles is, of course, that the Beatles didn’t happen all that long ago, we all know their story, and their faces are as deeply ingrained in our mind’s eye as those of our family members. For some of us, our memories of The Beatles are more vivid than those of family members. For some of us, The Beatles are cherished as honorary family members, if only in our own heads. And nobody wants to see a movie making mockery of beloved family members. So, it’s very important for a movie to get it right.
Does Nowhere Boy get it right? For the most part. It’s factually accurate to a reasonable degree and believably staged. It does simplify and romanticize the story, but not exorbitantly so. The main focus is not, as one would expect, on the thunderously important formation of the nascent Beatles, although those events are portrayed faithfully. The story remains intimately focused on Lennon’s relationship with his first love; his mum. Lennon’s abandonment by his parents as a small boy was, famously, a deep trauma that he struggled to deal with throughout his life. Nonetheless, he adored his vivacious, irresponsible mother and became very close to her, until (SPOILER ALERT) her untimely death. He also loved his stern, pragmatic Aunt Mimi, the woman who raised him when his mother was unable to. The tug of war between fun-loving, possibly unstable mum, and rule-loving, reserved aunt is the main dramatic tension, as young John tries to establish his identity as a cool rocker and come to terms with his living situation. It’s an inherently affecting story, and it’s a good thing director Sam Taylor-Wood presents it without trying to milk any extra drama. The make-it-or-break-it factor, obviously, is casting. Anne-Marie Duff and Kristin Scott Thomas are both excellent as Julia and Mimi, respectively, so you can breathe a sigh of relief there. The actor playing Paul McCartney looks about twelve years old, which is good, and has a prominent Adam’s apple, which is not. The nominal George Harrison appears in exactly one scene, not counting stage montages. So how is the leading man? Aaron Taylor-Johnson (then billed without the Taylor) is a talented and charismatic actor. I like him a lot. He is very attractive and I thought it was both adorable and distinctly Lennonesque when he married Sam Taylor-Wood and took part of her name. He does not, however, look anything like John Lennon. He does get enough of the swagger that a certain suspension of disbelief eventually sets in, and you start to see the Lennonicity. And he does affectingly capture the wounded child side of John. But not his acerbic mean side. The tough, defensive John Lennon who was very frequently a royal douchehole is largely absent. This John Lennon is all about crying and hugging. This lopsided portrayal isn’t accurate, but it’s an understandable artistic liberty, and on the whole I would recommend it as a good biographical introduction for novices. If you can set aside the fact that you know very well what Lennon and McCartney looked like, and those guys just don’t look like them at all.
Those shortcomings are inevitable when trying to represent such well known real life figures, and I doubt there’s ever been a biopic that didn’t similarly grapple with verisimilitude. Some succeed and some fail, but the danger of failing doesn’t ever seem to stop anyone from trying. An upcoming film about Jimi Hendrix that uses none of his music? Greenlight that baby! Supermodel-gorgeous Zoe Saldana portraying the tortoiselike Nina Simone? Greenlight! One safe route would be the one Todd Haynes took when he made the absolutely 100% fictional totally imagination-based film Velvet Goldmine, which was very pointedly about David Bowie. That film worked because it struck a neat balance between authentically capturing the spirit of its un-subject, and taking grand imaginative liberties with him, all without making any attempt at literal emulation, because that would obviously be doomed to fail. Or, Todd Haynes again, the rather surreal but convincing Bob Dylan fantasia I’m Not There, in which Cate Blanchett performed the most accurate Dylan impression anyone had ever seen. Among more traditionally plotted music pics, there have been many earnest but square prestige magnets like Walk the Line, which seemed to have aimed more squarely at Academy Award voters than Johnny Cash fans. Cadillac Records sticks in the mind as a standout, maybe because instead of focusing on just one larger-than-life career trajectory it traced the story of entire record label, Chess, and gave equal attention to many stars. Also, in that movie, the eternally underrated Jeffrey Wright finally proved your lifelong suspicion that Muddy Waters and Jean-Michel Basquiat were really the same person. I mean, have you ever seen them together?
I’d also like to briefly mention The Rolling Stones, because I can’t fucking write a comprehensive article about anything without mentioning them, could I? They don’t get the cinema love the Fab ones do, presumably because only a fucking lunatic would have the balls to touch Mick Jagger’s legend. Jagger and Richards are portrayed in brief cameos in the Uschi Obermaier bio Eight Miles High, and it wasn’t bad, especially the believably dissolute Alexander Scheer as Keef. And both appear in passing in the aforementioned Cadillac Records. There is one Stones focused biopic out there, which I also put off watching because I feared it would be too gratuitously salacious, and it is appropriately called Stoned. That film, released in 2005, is a speculative narrative of the final days of Brian Jones. Jones died under mysterious circumstances, and though the conspiracy theories surrounding his death aren’t as popular as the ones Marilyn Monroe enjoys, they do have a devoted following. The proliferation over the years of wingnut theories are exactly the reason I feared the movie would be disrespectful and melodramatic. I found it to be surprisingly less so, though there is definitely way too much uncalled for nudity and Performance-inspired visual effects. (I recommend a Stoned/Performance double bill, and you should be stoned.) Given the mysteriousness of the real events, I can’t fault it for inaccuracy. We don’t really know what happened, and what happens in the movie isn’t too far-fetched. I was also pleasantly surprised that Jones’ personality was portrayed in an accurate manner. He receives a more well balanced treatment that John Lennon just did. Like Lennon, Jones could be an enormous asshole, and unlike Lennon’s movie, this one doesn’t shy from showing that side. Jones, of course, is not as dear to as many people’s hearts as Lennon, so it’s ok to show him being unlikable. Much credit goes to leading man Leo Gregory, who looks at least somewhat like the golden Stone, and also shows both his selfishness and his vulnerability. His dickish behavior to everyone around him is balanced by his isolation, his paranoia and his childish desire for approval. He was a complicated, troubled man, and we can see that. I was also delighted to see Ben Whishaw as Keith Richards. Whishaw has also portrayed Bob Dylan and John Keats, so he knows about playing rock stars, and he certainly has the elegantly wasted pirate ghoul look so necessary for the task. Like its heroes, Stoned is somewhat sleazy, but sexy and entertaining. And thank goodness it carries no ambitions of seriousness or prestige.