25 June 2018

Reposted Notes From Nowhere Boy

Having written recently about Michael Hill, author of a memoir about the young John Lennon, this seems a good time to repost my earlier piece about the film Nowhere Boy.

Question: Does the world need yet another review of Nowhere Boy?
Answer: Almost certainly not, but I am impelled to record my comments.

Talking about the Brian Jones biopic Stoned in an earlier entry, here, I said that whatever the facts of the matter, a coherent narrative had been assembled - ie that it worked as a film if you didn't know about Jones's story beforehand and weren't already wedded to a specific theory about the manner of his death. The idea of Jones being intimidated at times by his builder, Frank Thorogood, which came over in more than one account I've read, was downplayed in the film, which chose instead to emphasise the idea that Jones taunted the builder with his rock god lifestyle, as it made the film's conclusion - that the taunting  escalated to the point where Thorogood snapped - more logical. It's not the only story which could have been fashioned out of the mass of available material, but it certainly makes sense.

I have to admit that with a Beatles-related film, however, I'm much more inclined to be picky about details. This may be partly because, having researched the Jones material for my own non-project, I'm more aware in that case of choices having to be made - but also, perhaps, because of  a proprietorial sense about the Fabs which I've never felt about the Stones: they weren't "mine," but belonged to my two elder brothers, one of whom actually styled himself "Mick" on occasion. The Stones were a more grownup interest; the Beatles belonged equally to all five of us (doubleclick to double your viewing pleasure).

And hey, John Lennon was my favourite going right back to the days of those Beatle chewing gum days, when you'd get some pink gum and a photo, all for however much it was. And since then I've devoured most (who can say all?) of the Beatles-related literature out there. Hey, I even own a book devoted to the "Paul is dead" myth, although I've never done more than skim it. Reading about the Stones for the specific purpose of researching a play was interesting but not wholly involving, as they weren't "mine" (which may well be one among several reasons why I never nailed the play).

So what do I think of Nowhere Boy? I certainly enjoyed it, but it was impossible to discard my baggage while watching. I won't try and write a proper review but will simply make some notes about things which struck me.

Most importantly, I wondered whether the polar opposition of Mimi and Julia was stepped up for the purposes of the film: this Mimi seemed particularly unforgiving and repressed. Yes, I know the love was there, and comes out directly at the end and at other moments, but I was surprised at times by the lack of warmth. It doesn't quite tally with the portrait by Philip Norman in his Lennon biography.

Also, am I misremembering or wasn't Lennon present along with his friend when Julia was killed? If so, why was that detail left out?

Some phrases seemed anachronistic, like "there for you."

Against that, moments which brought familiar photographs to life, such as the famous fete (above), and a later gig. were well done - and I have seen an extra on the DVD which talks about the process of the actors learning to play instruments. It even sounded like the Woolton fete was closely based on the fragment of tape miraculously available of the band, with the same acoustic, and In Spite of All the Danger, the later recording done in a studio of sorts, also sounded pretty good - so the misudgement of Backbeat, which had us hearing the Hamburg songs as though done by modern musicians, was avoided.

And I suppose whatever carping comments might be made, in essence you did get the story of why Lennon was so mixed up and ready for rock'n'roll. Did he embrace Paul McCartney after Julia's funeral as this film suggests? Whether or not he did, the moment - rendered of particular significance in longshot - is a handy visual metaphor for the new, redemptive thing, in the form of this new person, he is now cleaving unto.

Seeing them (top) play guitar together (recalling but not replicating Mike McGear's photograph - possibly because it's meant to be happening in John's house, not Paul's) and the feet tapping in unsion was also a good touch. In fact, there is a lot of restraint here: this, after all, is a story whose details are so well known that a general audience has less need to be nudged.

Some reviewers have said there is a more interesting story to be told about the relationship between the two sisters and that the emphasis on Lennon gets in the way of that being explored to its fullest extent, as in the Guardian review by Peter Bradshaw, readable here:
Throughout the movie, I had the sense that Lennon was really a supporting turn and the stars were Julia and Mimi, but that, frustratingly, we were only ever allowed to see them from John's lairy and semi-comprehending point of view. John has to be the focus, and part of the movie's point is his youth, his poignant inability to appreciate how much these women love him.

And the film does contrive a tearful crisis in which the awful secret origins of the Mimi-John-Julia love triangle are laid bare. But for me, this finale was a little stagey, is resolved too easily and disconcertingly discloses a more intense story which has been happening, as it were, behind the movie's back.
Of course if you've elected to call it Nowhere Boy rather than Two Sisters (the title of a Kinks song, incidentally) you've already made an editorial decision - but perhaps that ties in with my sense of Mimi's being portrayed as slightly too harsh: it makes for a clearer story, A vs. B, the devil and angel perched  on either Lennon shoulder. No, that's too reductive, but I did wonder about the fine tuning of Mimi.

There are also odd details in the film that only a Beatlemaniac (or dullblogger) might take exception to: as the one example of a song taught by Julia to John, why Maggie May and not, say, Scatterbrain, which she also played? Probably because the former is more earthy. A small decision, but indicative of many choices which have to be made in such a project. (In the director's commentary about a deleted scene in which Julia plays a Formby tune, Sam Taylor-Wood says that it didn't add to the effect created by Maggie May so it was cut - to the chagrin of the actress who'd been practising for months, apparently.)

Okay, I'm done. There is a lot more to say about the film, so I will direct you to a review cited in an earlier entry, Philip French in the Observer, here. For him,
... rather than dwelling on the unique circumstances that produced a musical genius, it's an affecting movie about coming of age and leaving home, and about the radical changes in British life since the Second World War.
He also likens it to That'll Be the Day (which I've reviewed here), featuring "a composite character partly modelled on John Lennon, who drops out of grammar school to pursue a musical career." And one detail which I forgot to mention in that review: Jim Maclain, the character played by David Essex, even has his own Aunt Mimi figure in his mother, played, with the appropriate restraint, by Rosemary Leach. Her performance is one of the best things in the film, in fact: you get all the concern and love behind the mask of brusqueness. She dies in the sequel, Stardust, although I don't think she actually appears in that film - and it's at a time when Essex's character is so caught up in rock excess that the event scarcely touches the sides.

The missing figure who haunts the family in That'll Be the Day is Jim's ne'er-do-well father - who, I suppose, does service as a kind of Julia figure. There is no reuniting between father and son, but a recurring memory for Jim is of sailing a toy boat with his dad (played by James Booth, a tiny role but indicative of the care with casting) who is trying to explain that he can't help it and has to leave the suffocating family home.

Jim, himself, does eventually come back home after chucking his educational prospects for the fringe benefits of jobs in a holiday camp and a fairground (ie girls). He tries to make a go of the family shop and marry a nice girl, to his mother's delight, which makes his subsequent departure all the more painful. It's a very well judged and well structured film, one which turned me on to doo wop apart from anything else, and worth seeking out as a companion piece to Nowhere Boy.

To return to the Lennon biopic, there is one slightly unfortunate feature, which I was vaguely aware of, but it was good to have it confirmed by someone who ought to know. If you listen to some of the between-takes chatter in the Beatles Anthology CDs, when Lennon isn't speaking for public consumption, you can hear evidence of what Liverpudlian Anthony Quinn says in his excellent review in the Independent, readable in full here - and I do urge you to read it. Having praised Aaron Johnson for his "rapid oscillation between vulnerability and boorishness" he observes:
But – and it's a heartbreaker – he can't do the accent, the sardonic nasal twang that seems to carry so much of Lennon's personality in it and set him apart even from the other Beatles (he was a few notches up the social scale). The trailer to the film uses Lennon's own voice, as if acknowledging that the original can't be faked. 
In the extras, Johnson talks of working with one voice coach on the accent and feeling slightly constricted - ie that the awareness of the accent got in the way of the acting, made him selfconscious - then working with another which allowed him to feel freer. You could say this goes with Sam Taylor-Wood's decision not to cast what she calls a "lookey-likey" Lennon (and maybe Ian Hart had to be informed that, much as she appreciated his interest, at this stage in his life there wasn't enough makeup in the world...). You could say that it would be an issue primarily with Liverpudlians, and the actor's sense of flexibility when performing is ultimately more important. But I wonder whether it's a case of the Lennon mythology becoming part of the truth, even in a biopic which is fairly scrupulous about other matters? And by Lennon mythology I mean both how he chose to present himself and a a kind of collective need: we don't really want to see Lennon as too middle class, too privileged because we want him to be emblemmatic of the sixties and to fit in with all the other icons from working class roots. Well, it's a thought.

If, like me, you have been wondering what Macca makes of Nowhere Boy, this extract from a Times article will be of interest:
Has he seen it? “I haven’t. Sam asked me to but I’ve been very busy lately. She showed me some little bits of it and I said to her, ’cos I know Sam, she’s a great girl, I said, ‘Sam, this isn’t true’. She sent me a synopsis and it said, ‘Aunt Mimi is a cruel woman’, and I said, ‘Sam, do me one favour: Aunt Mimi was not cruel. She was mock strict, very proper. But she was a good heart who loved John madly and she knew she had to bring up what was potentially a wayward boy’. I always could read that.”

Taylor-Wood had the character rewritten. “She showed me some stuff and I said, ‘Well, the Mimi character’s good now, I like that, but that bit, we never did that, and John never did that, and he certainly didn’t do that’. So we had a discussion about ‘Yeah, well, it’s a film’ — ‘This is not a pipe’, as Magritte would have said, ‘it’s a painting’. It captures the essence, but not for me. Because I was there. I hear it’s a good film. But it’s my life.”

Related post:

Robert Rodriguez's interview with Michael Hill

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