John Lennon would have turned 70 last Saturday. Most of us didn't need a commemorative Google squiggle to remember him. The Beatles were the most popular singing group ever, and John was a lifelong quick-change artist who felt compelled to keep a song diary.
We know each and every one of him: John the motherless child, Goon Show clown, Rubber Soul man, acid-eating walrus. After the Beatles, he kept on coming: pyjama-clad peace-peddler, working-class hero, jealous guy and, finally in 1980, senseless violence victim.
The new movie Nowhere Boy collapses the singer-songwriter's every persona into one, finding its storyline in Lennon's 1970 song I Found Out: "I heard something 'bout my Ma and my Pa/They didn't want me so they made me a star."
The movie tells the universal in the particular, presuming Lennon's career, from the songs Love Me Do to Beautiful Boy, can be explained by a stretch in the 1950s when he found and lost his mum, Julia.
That's a good strategy. Think of all of Lennon's fashion changes - a 10-year look at Beatle John might have turned actor Aaron Johnson into a haircut flipbook. This portrait of a Beatle as a young man also gives filmmaker Sam Taylor-Wood, working on a thoughtful script by Matt Greenhalgh, creative room to manoeuvre, introducing us to John just as he and rock 'n' roll discover one another.
The movie begins with a bit of musical foreshadowing - John peddling down a street, accompanied by the thrashing opening chord of A Hard Day's Night. Seconds later, we pass Strawberry Fields and experience a flicker of worry. Who needs a musical survey of Lennon and Paul McCartney's early years? No one could top their 1967 single: Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever, a hallucinatory, altogether thrilling childhood travelogue. But then pay dirt: Lennon arrives at school, attracting uniformed girls. One, grinning lewdly, asks John to expose himself. He happily obliges. The girls scatter, giggling. What a perfect introduction to the commotion that was John Lennon, an artist who devoted his best years to self-discovery by revealing himself to fans.
After that, we find John at home with Aunt Mimi, who's depicted by Kristin Scott Thomas as a well-meaning scold. John loves his mother's sister, but disappears frequently to find the woman who gave him away, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff) and to ask a simple question: Why? The answer, the film argues, is that Julia wasn't mature enough to steer a brilliant mess like John. She wanted to be his girlfriend. We see Julia flirt with her son. When she falls into his arms, John doesn't know what to do with his hands.
Julia introduces John to Elvis. Gives him a fake mahogany guitar that he places on his bed, staring at it like it's a beautiful, naked woman. All of which helps explain why John had an extraordinary musical career and a lifetime of women problems.
None of this would work if Johnson ( Kick-Ass) wasn't a convincing teenage John. But the 20-year-old actor can sing and play guitar, and he exudes reckless daring.
This is the John Lennon expelled from high school for hopping onto the lap of a nude art-class model. It could be argued that Nowhere Boy is too dark, that this John Lennon is too much of a mope. Where is the John who sang in She Said, She Said, "Oh, no-no, you're wrong, when I was a boy, everything was right." Well, he existed too. John Lennon was a lot of people.
- Directed by Sam Taylor-Wood
- Written by Matt Greenhalgh
- Starring Aaron Johnson, Kristin Scott Thomas and Anne-Marie Duff
- Classification: 14A
Special to The Globe and Mail