Two periods of John Lennon’s life are explored in two very different British films set for release this fall: “Nowhere Boy” (which will be released theatrically in the U.S. in October, with a DVD release to follow) and “Lennon Naked” (set for DVD release in October).
“Nowhere Boy,” first released in Britain in 2009, covers Lennon’s troubled teenage years. When Lennon was 5, his parents, Julia and Alfred, separated, and he was then moved to the care of his aunt Mimi and uncle George. “Nowhere Boy” shows him tentatively rekindling the relationship with his mother at the same time that rock ’n’ roll enters his life.
The film’s underlying thesis is that a sense of abandonment followed Lennon throughout his childhood and his youth, directly informing his work. He loses his parents as a child; as a teen, his beloved uncle dies. With his aunt more of a mother figure, his renewed relationship with his real mother is like that of a lively older sister or best friend (and there are hints of erotic playfulness between the two). But the tug-of-war between the sisters for John’s affections gradually leads to some tense confrontations.
A bit more fraught than in reality; Lennon saw more of his real mother growing up than the film implies, though his devastation at his mother’s unexpected death in an automobile accident is certainly genuine. The movie is best when it recreates the idyllic Liverpool of the ’50s, reminding the viewer than Lennon was no tough, working-class hood but a well-fed, well-dressed suburban boy. “Nowhere Boy” also expertly captures the sense of excitement that fueled the rise of rock ’n’ roll in England. Records are passed around like prized treasures, with the music creating a delirious kind of magic. The creative team behind the film (director Sam Taylor Wood and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh) clearly loves music, and songs like Jackie Brenston’s “Rocket 88,” Wanda Jackson’s “Hard-Headed Woman,” and Screaming Good Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You” are all used to good effect (you can see why American culture held such a strong lure for people in other countries).
In contrast to the emotional relationships in his life that come and go, rock ’n’ roll provides Lennon with something solid to cling to; something that will always be there for him, especially as he moves from being a musician to a composer. For their part, the budding Beatles are shown performing an early original, “In Spite of All the Danger,” a Paul McCartney/George Harrison composition. An alternate version of Lennon’s “Mother” plays over the closing credits.
The acting is first rate, especially the “moody and magnificent” Aaron Johnson as John, Anne-Marie Duff as the high-spirited Julia, and Kristin Scott Thomas as the stern but loving Aunt Mimi.
“Nowhere Boy” ends in 1960, with the Beatles heading off for their first season in Hamburg, Germany. “Lennon Naked” (which debuted on British TV earlier this year) picks up the story four years later, when the Beatles have become an international sensation. As “Nowhere Boy” dealt with the relationship between Lennon and his mother, “Lennon Naked” focuses on his equally troubled relationship with his father, with the opening scenes having John and Alfred confronting each other for the first time in 17 years.
The film’s main story begins in 1968, when Lennon’s marriage and his relationship with The Beatles are both falling apart. “You’re cruel and spiteful,” Cynthia Lennon says to her soon-to-be-ex during divorce negotiations, and it’s an observation that unwittingly spells out the film’s major flaw. John Lennon is shown as being in a constant state of irritation, from the first scene to the last. It’s not really clear why. As in “Nowhere Boy,” there are repeated flashbacks to the day when Lennon was forced to choose which parent he wanted to live with, but it surely wasn’t something he thought about every single day afterward.
Nonetheless, Christopher Eccleston’s Lennon is shown as being incapable of having a conversation without becoming overbearingly resentful. Lennon was known to have an acerbic wit, but he wasn’t excessively hostile all the time. The result is that the viewer wonders how anyone — the other Beatles, his friends, his wife, his father, his new girlfriend Yoko Ono — could bear to put up with him.
Granted, the end of the decade was tumultuous for Lennon (divorce, remarriage, Ono’s miscarriages, drug busts, the Beatles’ split, the launch of Apple, and Lennon’s own creative efforts). But his constant railing against the world eventually becomes tiresome, and makes the latter part of the film drag.
Ultimately, “Nowhere Boy” presents a more well-rounded view of its subject; Lennon is occasionally cruel, but also shown as being kind or remorseful. The one-sided view in “Lennon Naked” makes you wonder how this angry individual could have written such heartfelt songs as “Julia” and “Oh My Love” — not to mention “Give Peace A Chance.” But Beatles/Lennon fans will probably still enjoy seeing two new interpretations of John Lennon.
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