It's always tough to suspend disbelief when watching a biopic about an icon. The subject's image is so ingrained in our consciousness, and we're so familiar with any mannerisms and speech patterns, it's often difficult to buy into an actor playing the role. (Meryl Streep did an excellent job with Julia Child in 'Julie & Julia,' but hey, she's Meryl Streep!) And though 'Nowhere Boy' only focuses on the turbulent teen years of legendary musician John Lennon - a period unfamiliar to most of us - it still faces the same uphill climb as any other biographical film with regard to credibility and believability. Director Sam Taylor-Wood tries her best to set the movie apart from others in the genre by focusing more on Lennon's emotional issues than musical development, but in so doing turns 'Nowhere Boy' into just another angst-ridden adolescent drama. That wouldn't be such a bad thing if it weren't for the fact that the familial strife that forms the story's basis wouldn't merit a big-screen treatment were it not for Lennon's celebrity. So 'Nowhere Boy,' for all its good intentions, often finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place, and despite some considerable talent on display, can't quite wriggle free.
And that's a shame, because Lennon was such a rebellious free spirit who seemed to revel in breaking the rules and fostering new ways of thinking. 'Nowhere Boy' certainly attempts to depict the artist's burgeoning independent aura and provide a glimpse inside his psyche, but despite a few exhilarating moments, the film too often becomes mired in pathos. The emotional tug-of-war tale tends to creak along, lacking the stamina to keep us involved, and awkwardly vies for supremacy with the story's musical side. And though Aaron Johnson terrifically evokes the young Lennon in an impressive performance that captures the musician's drive, sensitivity, and recklessness, the actors who portray the other soon-to-be Beatles don't measure up physically to their famous counterparts. That shouldn't really matter, but when dealing with a group as iconic as The Beatles, it did to me, and immediately took me out of the film. Too much of the time during 'Nowhere Boy' I felt detached, and for a film that strives for intimacy and connection, that's a problem.
Like many entertainment stars, Lennon survived a troubled home life and difficulties at school, and 'Nowhere Boy' chronicles this period of personal evolution and self-discovery. Lennon's unwed mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), relinquished John to the custody of her sister Mimi (Kristen Scott Thomas) when he was still a baby, and for years he enjoyed a happy, normal existence. But when his uncle dies and the stoic Mimi remains emotionally withdrawn, John decides to renew contact with Julia, who lives within walking distance of his home and now has a husband and two young girls. Julia is far less strict than Mimi, and her happy-go-lucky, effervescent, irresponsible nature appeals to John. She teaches him to play the banjo, and encourages his musical development. Tensions mount, however, when John's behavior at school causes a suspension and Mimi tries to impose necessary discipline. Mimi and Julia clash over John, each wanting what they believe to be their rightful piece of him, and the stress causes John to delve deeper into music as a form of escape and release. He forms an amateur band, and soon meets 15-year-old Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) and George Harrison (Sam Bell), and the three begin the tentative collaborations that would one day take the music world by storm.
Thomas plays the rigid Mimi just right, balancing her outwardly cold and distant demeanor with a touching devotion to and love for John that she just can't allow herself to fully express. Julia is her antithesis, and Duff expresses her bubbly, needy personality and childlike immaturity well, even as they grate and annoy. All this mother-love gets a bit thick at times and quickly wears thin, sending 'Nowhere Boy' into the murky waters of melodrama and shifting the focus away from John. The musical sequences, however, supply some much-needed energy, even if Lennon's rough-around-the-edges group, The Quarrymen, reminded me a bit too much of the fictional quartet, The Wonders, in 'That Thing You Do.'
'Nowhere Boy' is a well-made film with some winning performances, adequate heart, and a smattering of period charm, but, at least for me, the pieces don't add up to a cohesive whole. Taylor-Wood deserves credit for tackling the tricky subject matter and bringing Lennon's early life to the screen, but I didn't come away with any deeper understanding of the pop music legend from watching this film. While I sympathize with his predicament and appreciate what he had to overcome, after viewing 'Nowhere Boy' I feel nowhere closer to knowing John Lennon than I did before the movie began.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Nowhere Boy' comes packaged in a standard Blu-ray case and resides on a dual-layer 50GB disc. Video codec is 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC and only a single DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track (in English) is offered. Subtitles are limited to English as well. Upon insertion of the disc, a Sony Blu-ray promo plays first, followed by three trailers (described below).
Clarity and brightness distinguish the 'Nowhere Boy' transfer and bring the bygone time period of 1950s Liverpool to vibrant life. Well-pitched contrast allows the colors to achieve a modicum of pop, with Julia's red coat and lipstick and the green double-decker bus exhibiting nice saturation. Black levels are appropriately lush, but whites run a little hot, washing out the finer details in a few scenes. Fleshtones, however, remain stable and true throughout, and close-ups are quite crisp. Swirling cigarette smoke is especially well rendered, and facial features - from eyebrows to pores - are razor sharp.
Background items and textures come across naturally, and shadow detail is fine. Faint grain lends the image a cozy film-like feel that suits the period material, and no digital enhancements or detrimental issues afflict the picture. This is a good effort from Sony that won't blow anyone away, but provides a fluid, pleasant viewing experience.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track possesses no glaring deficiencies, but somehow I expected a bit more aural vitality from a film about one of the most legendary and influential musicians of our time. The sound isn't dull by any means, but it doesn't go above and beyond either. Stereo separation across the front channels helps to expand the audio field, and the surrounds kick in occasionally to provide welcome ambience. The Liverpool dialects, though, often can be extremely difficult to understand (at many points I was tempted to turn on the subtitles just so I wouldn't lose the narrative thread), but when lines are not mumbled or rattled off at rapid-fire pace, conversations are clear and well prioritized. Unfortunately, the band sequences keep the sound anchored up front, limiting fidelity and minimizing excitement. Bass frequencies don't get much chance to shine, but dynamic range is adequate, and no distortion disrupts the track.
This is perfectly acceptable audio that serves the film well, but I'm sure if Lennon were alive today, he'd be anxious to tweak it.
Sony tacks a few extras onto this release, but there's nothing here that provides any cogent examination of the film or its production.
'Nowhere Boy' provides a look-in on the early life of music icon John Lennon, but this frustrating portrait, though well made, favors melodrama over insight and leaves us strangely unfulfilled. Good direction and fine work from a stellar cast, especially Aaron Johnson as Lennon, keeps the film's engine running, but can't quite make it hum. Supplements are slim, but good video and audio enhance the viewing experience. Still, at least for me, 'Nowhere Boy' only rates a rental, unless you're a diehard Beatles/Lennon aficionado.