DVD Review: Nowhere Boy (2009)

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When rock historians and biographers cover John Lennon, they usually wind up defining him and the periods of his life in terms of his relationships from his time spent collaborating on some of the twentieth century's greatest pop songs with The Beatles and the next phase of his life spent as a peace activist and artist alongside true love Yoko Ono.

This need to sum up Lennon with the company he kept is a curious phenomenon and one that applies more to the tragically short life of the man in question than any of the other Beatles as when individuals discuss Ringo Starr, George Harrison and/or Paul McCartney, they don't do so in terms of their relationships with musicians, wives or family but rather as just themselves.

And in fact, our collective fascination in Lennon's circle of friends and family is so subtle and accepted that it wasn't until I saw Sam Taylor-Wood's feature length directorial debut Nowhere Boy, which chronicled John Lennon's teen years that I was able to articulate and even recognize this fact.

Intriguingly, in discovering more about his past, I realized how perfectly fitting this concept actually is for the man whose formative years were likewise categorized in terms of his relationships shared with the two sisters who mothered him.

As a nonconformist, artistically inclined fifteen year old Liverpool lad (played by Aaron Johnson), it wasn't until he lost his beloved more-friend-than-guardian Uncle George that he discovered that his estranged biological mother lived within walking distance of the flat he shared with his prim, emotionally icy but loyal Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas).

Having built up enough courage to visit his mother along with his cousin, John was easily entranced by the enthusiastic, carefree lifestyle led by his beautiful, possibly slightly manic, overly affectionate free-spirited overgrown party girl mom Julia (Anne-Marie Duff).

And since sneaking off to see her was in itself an act of character-defining coming-of-age rebellion, it's easy to see how great of an impact these stolen days had on the lad as his banjo playing mother taught her son John to play the instrument as a gateway to the guitar and also introduced him to the wild world of rock 'n roll.

Yet as much as John cherished keeping his newfound bond with Julia a secret from Mimi for as long as he could, once Mimi found out, the relationship he shared with both women changed as Mimi warned him that Julia would eventually break his heart. And sure enough, John realized he could only ignore the lingering unanswered questions as to why he'd been abandoned and left to feel like an orphan by Julia for so long as he began to reevaluate his life with the two women who'd raised him.

And although one would assume that -- given the cheeky remarks attributed to Lennon -- this biographical handling would be likewise filled with testosterone posing and facetious bravado, the cinematic end result is quite the opposite and blissfully unexpected.

A refreshingly intimate portrait of the musician as a young man, Nowhere Boy undoubtedly owes a great deal to the fact that – befitting to its plot setup of a young Lennon torn between two mothers -- a female director was brought aboard to keep a watchful eye on what is in fact a very sensitive work.

And because John Lennon is such an iconic figure, Sam Taylor-Wood's movie offered viewers an impressive example of the young actor's tremendously diverse range as Aaron Johnson's spirited turn in Kick-Ass filled the multiplexes while Boy simultanously embarked on a quiet art-house tour back in 2010.

However, the film is particularly anchored by the stellar turns of Lennon's two moms (Thomas and Duff), which eventually erupt into an explosive battle wherein the three relatives all put their cards on the table in a confrontational showdown that is as amazing to behold from an acting standpoint as it is emotionally potent for viewers.

Bolstered by a very realistic screenplay penned by Matt Greenhaigh as a follow-up to his previously moving musical biopic Control, which charted the short and troubled life of Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis, Boy easily transports us back in time to the Liverpool of Lennon's youth that's beautifully captured by Atonement cinematographer Seamus McGarvey.

All in all, it's a highly recommended and effective piece of cinematic Lennon portraiture. Nowhere Boy introduces us to two of the biggest influences responsible for shaping John Lennon as both the musician and the man whom to this day we still feel is best defined by his relationships... including those we are still discovering.

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FTC Disclosure: Per standard professional practice, I received a review copy of this title in order to evaluate it for my readers, which had no impact whatsoever on whether or not it received a favorable or unfavorable critique.