"I lost my mother twice. Once as a child of five and then again at seventeen."
- John Lennon
Nowhere Boy is a film about both losses.
The film's opening chord and the sight of John Lennon running to a background of applause is a nod to A Hard Day's Night1. This, and the sudden wake up from the dream, is a very strong way to establish in an instant who the characters are, what the film is about and even the central relationship between John and his aunt, Mimi.
Again, as with Birth Of The Beatles and Backbeat, the film's authenticity is stressed. Like Backbeat, the end credits state "what happened next" in the central relationship between John and Mimi, emphasising how John and Mimi stayed in contact throughout John's life. Over this caption we hear the John Lennon song 'Mother', which is about the events the film portrays from John's perspective. A genuine photograph of John Lennon as a child can be seen frequently in the film on Mimi's mantelpiece2. All these touches encourage us to believe that the film accurately portrays what actually happened in his life.
|Aaron Johnson||John Lennon|
|Alex Ambrose||John Lennon (Child)|
|Kristin Scott Thomas||Mimi Smith|
|Thomas Sangster||Paul McCartney|
|Anne-Marie Duff||Julia Lennon|
|David Morrissey||'Bobby' Dykins|
|Josh Bolt||Pete Shotton|
|David Threlfall||Uncle George Smith|
|Sam Bell||George Harrison|
|James Johnson||Stanley Parks|
|Jack McElhone||Eric Griffiths|
|James Jack Bentham||Rod Davis|
|Ophelia Lovibond||Marie Kennedy|
|Christian Bird||Jimmy Tarbuck|
Nowhere Boy is director Sam Taylor-Wood's first full length film. She has an impressive art background, including being nominated for the Turner Prize in 1998, and her first narrative short film, Love You More, was nominated for a BAFTA in 2009. Her work on Nowhere Boy earned her an Outstanding Debut BAFTA nomination in 2010.
The film is dedicated to Oscar winning Isle of Wight director Anthony Minghella3, who is described as 'A guiding light, 1954-2008'. In the extended interview with director Sam Taylor-Wood, she states that it was Anthony Minghella's interest in her artwork that allowed her to get the opportunity to direct a full length film.4
Kristin Scott Thomas' portrayal of Aunt Mimi is more believable and sympathetic than the 'stereotypical granny' approach that Birth of The Beatles' actress Eileen Kennally showed. It is also refreshing to see a film in which John Lennon's middle class upbringing was presented accurately, rather than John being portrayed as the 'working class hero' he later defined himself as being. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress for her role in Nowhere Boy.
Aaron Johnson's portrayal of John Lennon does not show us the John Lennon we know. This emphasises that at this point in his life, he wasn't the John Lennon that we know he later became, but is John Lennon the teen. The Beatles are never mentioned specifically by name, and references to them are rare and in context. There is a quick cycle past of 'Strawberry Fields', reminding viewers of the future of John Lennon. Later in the film are the historic meetings of John with Paul McCartney, and later still with George Harrison. Although Stuart Sutcliffe is mentioned near the end of the film, curiously he does not appear at all.
Thomas Sangster's Paul McCartney is perfectly cast, emphasising the difference in age between him and John as well as showing their differing outlooks in life. Again in a common theme for a Beatles biopic, Paul is underused, but his influence is shown in the delightful scenes he shares with John. In one of the film's greatest moments we see Paul teaching John the guitar, encouraging John to write his own songs and finding common ground with John through sharing that his mother, Mary, had died of cancer. George Harrison has a very small, almost background role in the film, but the scene of him on the bus impressing John with his playing captures the essence of George's wit within a few seconds.
Anne-Marie Duff's portrayal of Julia Lennon resulted in her being nominated for a Best Supporting Actress BAFTA as well as winning the Best Supporting Actress awards at the British Independent Film Awards and Evening Standard British Film Awards.
Disc One – Music From Nowhere Boy:
- Wild One
- Mr Sandman
- Rocket 88
- Shake Rattle & Roll
- Hard Headed Woman
- I Put A Spell On You
- Maggie Mae
- That'll Be The Day
- Rockin' Daddy
- Twenty Flight Rock
- That's Alright Mama
- Movin' And Groovin'
- Hound Dog
- Hello Little Girl
- In Spite Of All The Danger
Disc Two – Music Inspired By Nowhere Boy:
- Roll Over Beethoven
- Rock Around The Clock
- Rip It Up
- Baby, Let's Play House
- Peggy Sue
- Party Doll
- I Fought The Law
- Brand New Cadillac
- Let The Good Times Roll
- Money (That's What I Want)
- Ain't That A Shame
- Stagger Lee
- These Dangerous Years
- Come Go With Me
The Nowhere Boys:
|Instruments||Actor / Musician|
|Vocals & Guitar||Aaron Johnson|
|Vocals & Guitar||Sam Bell|
|Piano & Vocals||Sam Swallow|
|Guitar, Banjo & Vocals||Ben Parker|
|Tea Chest, Bass & Guitar||Jimmy Sims|
|Guitar & Banjo||Patrick Murdoch|
The soundtrack album is on the whole very good value for money, with two discs worth of songs. The CD version is tastefully packaged, and the Compact Discs themselves inspire a period feel as they are designed to look like records, complete with grooves5. The first disc contains songs that are included in the film in the order in which they appear in the film. The second disc contains songs that are of the same period as Nowhere Boy is set in. Strangely the disc is labelled 'Music inspired by Nowhere Boy' – yet clearly a film created in 2009 cannot be said to have inspired music made 60 years before. Appropriately, the incidental music for the film was recorded at Abbey Road studios, the music studio favoured by the Beatles and made famous by their Abbey Road album.
Strangely, though, some songs in the film do not appear on the soundtrack. This includes 'Blue Moon', 'My Son John' and 'Let Me Be Your Teddy Boy'. The most important song not to feature on the soundtrack is 'Love Me Tender', sung by Paul McCartney in tribute to his mother, Mary.
The most bizarre choice of song in the film is 'Maggie Mae6'. In the film, this is the song that Julia Lennon plays to impress John, and the first song she teaches him. Although it is true that this Liverpool song is a song that the Quarry Men did know and perform, John Lennon has frequently said that the first song that Julia taught him was 'That'll Be The Day' by Buddy Holly7. John described this by saying,
'My mother taught it to me on the banjo, sitting there with endless patience until I managed to work out all the chords. She was a perfectionist. She made me go right through it over and over again until I had it right. I remember her slowing down the record so that I could scribble out the words. First hearing Buddy absolutely knocked me for a loop. And to think it was my own mother who was turning me on to it all.'
So why is Julia shown performing 'Maggie Mae'? Julia tells John that this is a song about a whore. The choice of associating 'Maggie Mae', a song about a Liverpool whore, with Julia, a Liverpool woman who had children by three different men, seems both rather harsh and judgmental. It is quite at odds with the rest of the film presenting her as being misunderstood and a victim of a more restricted society.
The scene at the end of the film, after Julia's death, set at Philip's recording studio is one which Paul McCartney provided advice to help get the genuine feel. This is a wonderful moment in the film, where John Lennon sings 'In Spite Of All The Danger8' in a raw, emotional manner. The words echo Mimi's earlier warning that Julia would break John's heart, yet John regardless pledges through the song, 'in spite of all the heartache that you may cause me, I'll do anything for you, anything you want me to, if you'll be true to me.' Every word perfectly captures the whole John and Julia relationship, even more so now that it has ended, in a song that the Beatles abandoned and forgot, never releasing before its uncovering by the Anthology project. The truth, though, is that it wasn't John's song, but was by Paul McCartney and George Harrison. Although musically it sounds very similar to the version on the Anthology 1 album, it was Paul McCartney, and not John Lennon, who sang this song on the recording. Yet again, as with Backbeat's portrayal of the Beatles singing 'Long Tall Sally', Paul McCartney's lead vocal talents are relegated to the background.
The authorised use of this Paul McCartney composition and John Lennon singing 'Mother' over the end credits is unprecedented in Beatles biopics, especially as the film makers of the award winning Backbeat had asked Yoko Ono for permission to use 'Love' at the end of that film, but were refused. Yoko Ono is therefore thanked in the film's credits, yet strangely Paul McCartney, who provided advice on Philip's recording studio and other aspects of John Lennon during his early days, is not.
Director Sam Taylor-Wood, in the film's soundtrack leaflet, expresses her musical aims with the words,
'The key thing of course was being historically accurate with the songs that The Quarry Men performed in particular – we knew we would be scrutinised for that… Ultimately I think we ended up with an eclectic collection of great songs, that John himself would have been proud of.'
The film shows, in the words of Nowhere Boy's tag line, 'As a boy all John Lennon needed was love'. This is what the focus of the film is about, in a bizarre love triangle between John, Julia, his mother, and his aunt Mimi, who raised John as her own child. Director Sam Taylor-Wood said,
'It sort of was a love triangle in a way because here basically two women fighting over one man and you know there were times where I had them play that in the sense that Mimi was the wife and Julia was the mistress in a sense because it was just a way of understanding the dynamics of jealousy and pain and desperation in a sense and again it was such a powerful triangle and sort of tussle and love war that sort of went on between them.'
This 'love triangle' approach is sometimes taken a little too literally, with John's trip to Blackpool with his mother coming across as a first date, complete with kisses, flirting, and Julia telling her son, 'Do you know what it means, rock 'n' roll? Sex.' In the director commentary, Sam Taylor-Wood informs us 'John had once said controversially that there was a moment with his mother where he felt he could have, in quotes, "had her".... It was something I felt that we had to sort of touch on.... we wanted to allude to that but obviously not run with it.' This is rather an uncomfortable moment in a film, fortunately one soon over shadowed by following scenes.
The two death scenes are surprisingly portrayed, and perhaps lack the emotional impact that they should have. Uncle George's character just begins to establish himself as the emotional heart of John Lennon's home when he dies. Had there been more scenes showing the close relationship between the two, his death would have had more of an impact. George after all had had a strong influence on John's life, teaching him to read through reading the newspaper every day. John inherited this love of reading a paper daily, and many of his songs, including 'A Day In the Life', were inspired by newspaper stories. Instead the tragic nature of the loss is watered down with the way his death is shown – concentrating on John Lennon's nervous, hysteric laughter9. However, Kristin Scott Thomas' reaction to the loss of her husband is wonderfully acted.
Julia's death is presented strangely, too. Although her death in the film does happen suddenly, it is not a shock that it happens. It occurs in a scene in which nothing important is occurring, which is a complete contrast to the exciting, quick-pulsed nature of the rest of the film. As this scene hasn't been edited out of the film it is obvious to the viewers that a dramatic event, such as a death, is coming up. This, and Julia's last words, 'You'll get slaughtered!' sadly lessen her death's impact.
The character of John's cousin Stanley Parkes, who was seven years older than John, is not very well introduced. He appears before Uncle George's funeral, and his line '[George] was my uncle too' can easily be interpreted to mean that Stanley is John's brother and not cousin. Stanley had a similar upbringing to John as Stanley's mother, John's aunt Elizabeth, known as 'Mater', gave Stanley away to her mother, John's grandmother Annie Stanley, to raise, until he was old enough to go to boarding school. Stanley and John kept in touch throughout John's life.
There are several stand-out moments in the film. The song, 'Wild Child', neatly introduces a young John Lennon to the audience. John and Julia's family relationship is stressed visually without a word being spoken with both of them wearing similar glasses at George's funeral. The sequence in which John learns how to play the banjo is also very well done, as is the sequence when Julia buys John his first guitar, and the meeting of John and Paul.
Just Gimme Some Truth
The film overall is accurate, with the central story of John being raised by his aunt essentially correct in every important detail.
The film greatly simplifies John's family life, showing just two sisters, Mimi and Julia10. However, this is understandable and indeed desirable considering the focus of the film is the emotional impact the double loss of his mother, when he was 5 and again when he was 17, had on John. Having superfluous characters in the film would, after all, confuse matters.
Uncle George did indeed buy John his first Harmonica. However, his death is not quite accurate. In fact, George died of a brain haemorrhage when John was staying with his Aunt Elizabeth and cousins Leila and Stanley in Scotland. John didn't learn of his death until he returned and asked where his uncle was. George taught John how to read.
John's guitar11 actually cost £14, not £7 as portrayed in the film. Mimi has said,
'I thought I would teach him a lesson by getting him [a guitar]. I thought that the novelty would wear off soon, and he would forget about it. So one Saturday we went down to Hessy's shop in Liverpool and I bought him one there. It cost me fourteen pounds. Fourteen pounds! That was a lot of money in those days. I begrudged paying it on a guitar for him, but I thought that if it keeps him quiet, then there's no harm done.'
John did indeed fill exercise books at school with his poems, stories and cartoons, which he called the 'Daily Howl'. This was in his style of his later In His Own Write and A Spaniard In The Works books.
In Nowhere Boy, the Headmaster of Quarry Bank Grammar School, Mr Pobjoy, is portrayed as someone with a personal vendetta against John and Pete, taking delight in caning and suspending them as the situation demanded. In truth, however, Mr Pobjoy was a positive influence on John's life. His reference for John Lennon's report card read,
'I believe [John] is not beyond redemption and he could really turn out a fairly reasonable adult who might go far.'
As well as providing these glowing words, he recommended that John apply for the Liverpool College of Art. Mimi has stated,
'Mr Pobjoy said to me, "Mrs Smith, this boy is an artist, he's a bohemian. If I can get him into the art college, are you prepared to keep him for the next twelve months?"'
Mr Pobjoy wrote to the principal of the Liverpool Art College on 17 July 1957, the last day of term, and as a result John was allowed to enter the college without taking exams.
John Lennon's Real Childhood Drama
Julia Stanley married Alfred Lennon on 3 December 1938. On 9 October 1940 John Lennon was born when Alfred was at sea.12 Julia and Alfred had originally been living with Julia's parents, George and Annie Stanley, but Mimi had arranged for Julia and John to live in a cottage Mimi's husband George Smith owned, so that she and John would be closer to her.
With her husband away at sea, Julia was lonely and soon befriended Taffy Williams, a soldier she met at her local pub, and had his baby. Julia's daughter was born at a Salvation Army hostel on 19 June 1945, and Julia named her Victoria Elizabeth. Although Alfred was willing to raise the daughter as his own, Julia's father, George Stanley, forced Julia to give her up for adoption. Victoria Elizabeth was adopted by a Norwegian sailor, never to be seen again.
After another sea voyage, Alfred returned to Liverpool to find that Julia was now living with another man, John 'Bobby' Dykins. Alfred threw Bobby out of the house, but Julia left also, taking John to a one-bed flat that she and Bobby shared. Mimi then declared that Julia was an unfit mother who should give John to her to raise, and when Julia refused, Mimi contacted Social Services, who on their second inspection discovered that John was sharing the only bed in the place, along with Julia and her lover Bobby. John then went to live with Mimi, although it is also believed that John spent some time living with Alfred's older brother, Sidney Lennon, and his wife Madge. It was then that, on a trip to Blackpool, Alfred decided to emigrate to New Zealand, taking John, and was confronted by Julia and Mimi, who had traced them through the Post Office. It was then that John, at the age of 5, was asked to chose who he wanted to spend the rest of his life with, the results of which choice are shown in the film.
Paul McCartney described Julia with the words,
'I always thought of Julia as being an exceptionally beautiful woman. She was very, very nice to us all. John just adored her, not simply because she was his mum.'
John Lennon not only wrote songs about her, including 'Julia' on The White Album and 'Mother' and 'My Mummy's Dead' on his solo albums, he also named his son, Julian, after her.
Mary Elizabeth 'Mimi' Smith
Mimi Smith's real name was Mary Elizabeth Smith, Nee Stanley, however everyone in the family knew her as Mimi. She described John's birth with the words,
'Do you believe in fate? Because I knew the moment I saw John in that hospital that I was the one to be his mother, not Julia. Does that sound awful? It isn't really, because Julia accepted it as something perfectly natural. She used to say, "You're his real mother, all I did was give birth to him."'
It was Mimi who chose the name John, and Julia chose his middle name, Winston, after then current Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
When the Beatles became famous, John Lennon bought Mimi a new bungalow, named Harbour View, in Sandbanks, Poole – now the second most expensive area of real estate in the world. Yoko Ono had the bungalow sold immediately after Mimi's death in 1994, on the day of her cremation, and it has since been knocked down and redeveloped.
Aunt Mimi, when describing John's childhood, has said
'It's true that his mother wasn't there and there was no father around, but my husband and I gave him a wonderful home. Why, John even had a pony when he was a little boy. He certainly didn't come from a slum.'
The Quarry Men
It is a lovely touch that for the The re-creation of Lennon and the Quarry Men extra on the DVD there is a short interview with Rod Davies and Colin Hanton - drummer, two of the original Quarry Men. It is not as long as it should have been. It is also a very nice touch that the attention detail is so accurate that the Quarry Men are wearing the clothes they wore on the day of the historic St Peter's Fete.
Pete Shotton met John when he was six at Sunday school, and in 1952 they both passed a scholarship to Quarry Bank Grammar School. They were fairly inseparable at school, playing pranks and getting into mischief. Pete Shotton did indeed become washboard player in the Quarry Men and on one occasion, when John was drunk, John did smash the washboard over his head. As the film shows, he did initially become a policeman, but within nine months became a partner of a café near Penny Lane.
In 1965 Pete Shotton, with John's help, bought a supermarket on Hayling Island, Hampshire, forming a company, Hayling Supermarkets Ltd, with George Harrison and John Lennon as directors, although John and George resigned their directorships in 1969. When the Beatles launched Apple, Pete was one of the directors, running the Apple Boutique and later he became John's personal assistant. After a disagreement with Yoko Ono he resigned, opened a chain of restaurants called Fatty Arbuckle's, which he sold for a tidy sum in 2001, retiring a millionaire.
Len Garry was introduced to John through Ivan Vaughan. Len and Pete Shotton constructed a tea-chest bass together, which was initially played by Bill Smith, but in June 1957 Len Garry took over as tea-chest bass player. He left the Quarry Men after a serious attack of tubercular meningitis and spent a week in a coma. In 1965 he married, and he his wife became devout believers in The People's Church, which teaches that rock and roll is evil. Len therefore destroyed all his Quarry Men memorabilia.
Eric Griffiths was one of the founding members of the Quarry Men, and introduced Rod Davis and Eric Griffiths to the group. He knew John as he attended Quarry Bank Grammar School. Eric initially played the guitar, but when George Harrison joined the group, George was the better guitarist. Eric has said,
'Paul and John asked me to go onto the bass but that meant buying a bass guitar and amplifier, which I wasn't prepared to do. I was sorry to go, and I never played a guitar again.'
Eric later opened a chain of dry cleaners in Edinburgh.
Colin Hanton was a friend of Eric Griffiths, and as the film shows, joined the group because Eric knew he had a drum kit. That drum kit is now a museum piece in 'The Beatles Story' museum, Albert Docks, Liverpool. He has said,
'I got fed up in the end. I had carted my drums around on a bus for two years as none of us had cars… I'd had enough.'
Rod Davis was banjo player for the group and left the Quarry Men soon after Paul McCartney joined, as, in his words,
'let's face it, a banjo doesn't look good in a rock group.
I simply didn't like rock 'n' roll very much. I preferred skiffle and trad jazz... As soon as I left the Quarry Men I bought a guitar and got into folk music.... I didn't leave the Quarry Men: I sort of drifted out.'
John Lennon later asked, before they became famous, if he would drum for the Beatles in their trip to Hamburg. Declining John is something Rod has described as 'my second bad career move'.
Ivan Vaughan was born on 18 June 1942 – the same day as Paul McCartney. He went to the same primary school as John, and his house's garden touched the back of John's aunt Mimi's garden. When John went to Quarry Bank Grammar school he attended the Liverpool Institute and was in the same class as Paul McCartney. Ivan Vaughan did initially join the Quarry Men, with a home-made tea-chest bass on which he had written 'Ive the Jive, the Ace on the Bass', before being replaced by Bill Smith and Len Garry. On 8 July 1958 he took Paul McCartney to the St Peter's Parish Fete, where John Lennon was playing with the Quarry Men, and introduced John to Paul in the village hall.
Ivan stayed in contact with Paul throughout his life and his wife Jan, a French teacher, helped Paul with French phrases for the song 'Michelle'. Ivan graduated from Cambridge and became an educational psychiatrist.
Although Ivan lost contact with John when John moved to New York, he resumed telephone contact with him in mid 1980, before John died. He stayed in close contact with Paul, however, and in December 1984 he even spent Christmas with the McCartney family. However, in the 1970s was afflicted with Parkinson's disease. He volunteered to become a guinea pig to test new treatments, yet the disease remains incurable. In 1986 he wrote Living With Parkinson's Disease. He died in 1994.
Ivan Vaughan's death affected Paul, who began to write poetry, including a poem titled 'Ivan', as a means of coping with his death, and also inspired his Standing Stone classical album. Paul said,
'Ivan was very important to me. Poetry seemed the right way to express what I felt about his death.'