Nowhere Boy is like a case-study in how not to make a biopic.
Granted, it’s a tough genre to pull off well. Rather than just presenting a straight documentary, with a litany of facts, you’ve decided to dramatise events, to make things more entertaining. Biopics are documentaries with jazz-hands. Except there’s a huge temptation to allow your film to become little more than a series of narrative checkboxes and what Mark KermodeVia Jon Ronson calls “chubby? Hmm…” moments. These are the sequences where the filmmakers use the viewers’ knowledge of the subject to sprinkle delightful moments of irony over a scene. It gets its name from a mis-remembered scene in The Karen Carpenter Story where Karen reads a review of one of their singles which says “and the chubby drummer kept time”, to which she says “chubby? Hmm…”
If you were to take the John Lennon element from Nowhere Boy, what would you be left with? A trite and badly-told Dennis the Menace story with some terrific actors doing their best with some dreadful material. Essentially, it’s “rebellious child with troubled family background escapes through music”, a story you’ve seen a thousand times already. Try pitching that story without John Lennon’s name attached and see how far you get.
The only thing Nowhere Boy has going for it is the John Lennon aspect. The first meeting of John and Paul! The first gig by the Quarrymen! And so on. All of which feel like 50-year old, heavily embellished anecdotes filtered through a Beatles fan’s fever-dream. At times, it feels like director Sam Taylor-Wood is so keen to tick these narrative checkboxes that he completely ignores their effect on the larger story. Worse still, the best things about the movie – Ann-Marie Duff and Kirstin Scott-Thomas’s heavyweight performances – completely put the rest of the cast to shame. Aaron Johnson really does his best in the lead role, but next to these two, he just comes across as a third-rate Lennon impersonator.
Skip this movie and just check out the Beatles Anthology instead.