Nowhere Boy

You don’t need to know much about The Beatles or John Lennon in particular to watch Sam Taylor-Wood’s Nowhere Boy (Ecosse Films / Icon), a fictionalised account about a period in Lennon’s teenage life that was supposedly significant to his development as a musician and person; in fact if you do, you might be annoyed at how the whole episode has been packaged. Life is never so tidy as it is presented in the movies. The period covers the time Lennon became reacquainted with his mother Julia after a decade of abandonment, during which his Aunt Mimi and her husband have brought him up, and runs up to and includes Julia’s death and funeral. During this time Julia teaches Lennon how to play banjo, involves him with her family life that includes two small daughters (one of whom whose memoirs form the basis for this film – this is the older child, Julia) she had with her de facto husband, and generally introduces Lennon to a different and more carefree way of experiencing life than the boy has known so far from his strait-laced aunt. Lennon ends up transforming from a rebellious teenager with no idea of what to do with himself or why he is angry at everyone and everything to a more purposeful young man who discovers in music an outlet for his artistic talents and his various frustrations.

Aaron Johnson, who plays Lennon, does a sterling job in what is basically a coming-of-age / kitchen-sink drama. He portrays nearly the full range of Lennon’s complex and troubled personality: he is at once sensitive, full of bravado and cheek, boorish, aware of the class differences between himself and his aunt on the one hand and on the other the people he prefers to mix with, and capable of unbelievable cruelty to people who love and support him. Kristin Scott Thomas (Mimi) and Anne-Marie Duff (Julia) are capable actors who, perhaps inevitably in this kind of movie drama, have to fall into the sisterly equivalent of the good cop / bad cop routine: the prim and proper class-conscious Mimi, always looking severely dark and school-marmish, attempts vainly to rein in Lennon from the consequences of what she considers his misdeeds while red-haired free spirit Julia in her bright colours collaborates with her son in actions both know will probably get up Mimi’s nose. You can smell the confrontation between the two women and what they are made to represent in this movie coming from a mile away and when it arrives it’s pretty ugly with Julia’s secrets spilled out in front of her son, already drunk and distraught after trying to get his mother to admit what happened to his father and where he went years ago. After this, the movie’s not too clear on how Lennon makes his peace with his aunt and mother, and there’s a suggestion that he never has the opportunity to renegotiate his relationship with Julia due to her premature death.

Of course while we wait for the showdown to arrive, there is the significant sub-plot of Lennon’s developing interest in music which leads him to form The Quarrymen, which in itself brings him in contact with Paul McCartney (played by Thomas Sangster, who looks almost right for the part) after the latter sees The Quarrymen perform at a fair. The precocious youngster teaches Lennon correct guitar-playing techniques and chords, brings along George Harrison to join the band, and even becomes a brother figure to Lennon when they discover they have a shared experience of the loss or absence of a mother (McCartney informs Lennon that his own mother is dead). This bond is strengthened after Julia’s death and the moment when the two teenagers acknowledge the connection is brief but very moving.

And what about the music, you ask? Well, yes, The Beatles are the proverbial elephant in the room as evidenced by background noises of screaming girls and the opening chord to ‘Hard Day’s Night’ which opens the movie, but the band’s name is never actually mentioned in the movie. Some of Lennon’s music is used in the film and there is also an excerpt of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’s ‘I Put A Spell On You’, but the soundtrack is scored in the main by the UK group Goldfrapp.

The movie makes no pretense at being a documentary, or even being all that factual: everything that happens appears compressed into a two-year period when more likely it was spread out over several years. The impression is given that Aunt Mimi and Julia don’t get on well because of Julia’s past behaviour in her marriage to Lennon’s father, and I imagine that a lot of Beatles and Lennon fans will be aghast at the idea of turning Lennon’s childhood and adolescence into a soap opera. Perhaps the two women actually had less influence on Lennon’s life than the film’s premise supposes and other adults most certainly had a role in forming his personality and musical development but when facts and making movie family dramas with emotionally manipulative material clash, I guess it’s generally too bad for the facts.

Don’t say you weren’t warned: It might get loud

Here’s the recipe: take three rock guitarists, each representative of his generation of rock musicians, put them together in a huge warehouse space with their instruments and, after they’ve talked a bit and become friendly, get them to play three pieces of music (each piece having been composed by each musician) together. Around this backbone, conduct and film separate interviews with the guys about their backgrounds, their influences, why and how they decided on their careers as guitarists, and what their creative processes are; put in archival footage of their concerts and some animations; revisit some significant sites (for the musicians) with them; and make a film (It Might Get Loud, Sony Pictures Classics) out of all this. The result is sometimes rich in music history, particularly when the guitarists under the spotlight happen to be Jimmy Page (The Yardbirds, Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2) and Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs), but unfortunately also very jumpy, going from one musician to another just when the first guy finishes talking about a particular career impasse or crisis and is about to say how he resolved it if he did; and seems a bit superficial, not giving viewers unfamiliar with any of these guys much more than a sketchy idea of the long and winding roads each man took to be what he is now. Perhaps the format chosen is inadequate: might the whole thing have worked better if each guitarist had a half-hour episode devoted to his career and musical development and then in the fourth episode they got together to talk, compare and swap ideas and play one another’s songs? Well, perhaps not, because when these guys do meet, they end up being too nice to each other, too respectful and deferential, the Edge in particular grim-faced with self-consciousness about how his skills as a songwriter and musician stack up against those of Page and White who readily bond together, at least when they are playing each other’s songs, and the viewer gets no sense of friendships being made or future possible collaborations mooted.

As you’d expect, interesting moments abound: most interesting for me is seeing Jack White build a guitar from a slab of wood, a glass bottle, a wire and an electric pick-up, then plug the whole thing into an amplifier, get an awesome roar out of it and proclaim “Who needs an expensive guitar?” or words to that effect. Contrast this with scenes of The Edge worrying over his layers of technology that include a laptop and a battery of FX pedals to bolster his melodies and riffs, some of which turn out to be pretty insubstantial when he turns off all his equipment and strums his guitar. In one moment, The Edge demolishes a lot of the hype about U2’s music – not a good scene to watch if you’re a U2 fan. The Edge is revealed as a technology-obsessed control-freak geek who relies on his machines to compensate for what he perceives as inadequate songwriting and technical skills: he confesses that when he was much younger he wasn’t sure if he could write original material but the film-makers don’t press him on how he overcame his doubts. He reveals a lack of insight and reflection when he slags off the generation of rock musicians who came of age during the late 1960s / early ’70s for arrogant and self-indulgent behaviour but seems oblivious to U2’s own liking for massive and elaborate stage sets where Bono can run around and relish the audience’s adulation. Not to mention of course, Bono’s humanitarian posturing and U2’s moving their tax base to Netherlands after the Irish government reformed its tax laws to be more equitable and force high earners to pay more tax.

Jack White turns out to be the most interesting character in a way, rising from childhood poverty in south Detroit and a job in an upholstery shop to pursue a career in which he eschews technology and forces himself into challenging and sometimes hilarious and painful situations to keep his creativity and songwriting skills sharp. As a result along the way he creates an amplified harmonica gadget that happens to fit into his guitar almost by accident. Jimmy Page plays the affable cultured English gentleman who perhaps lives too much in the past – this may be due to the film-makers’ interview approach which concentrates on his past glories but not much on his current work – and who displays a maniacal glee when sorting through his alarmingly well-ordered and extremely neat record collection (I can already hear the jaws of The Wire readers hitting the ground and shattering) and doing slide air guitar while an old vinyl single plays on the gramophone. Free ticket to next year’s world championships in Finland to that man! He happily leads the film-makers around Headley Grange where Led Zeppelin recorded their famous third and fourth albums and explains how the massive drum sound on “When the Levee Breaks” was captured by placing microphones around stairwells, off bannisters and in areas surrounding the room where John Bonham was playing his drums. Apart from this, there’s really not a lot of information about the processes each guitarist goes through in writing songs – to be fair, White does compose an entire song for the film-makers but is wordless the whole time and Page seems to regard explaining such processes as a professional trade secret – and at the end of the film, we are still in the dark about how three individuals approach songwriting and composing riffs and melodies.

As a homage to three guitarists, the film is entertaining though the constant jumps from one musician to another can be annoying and we get little sense of purpose or progression in each musician’s career. The film-makers don’t appear to challenge their subjects much or pursue a line of enquiry: for example, Page talks about an early career crisis when he realises his work as a session musician hit a dead end but the film then cuts away to someone else. Later on Page is shown performing with the Yardbirds so we have to make our own assumptions about they presumably saved his career. Some reviews of the film I have seen describe it as boring and I can see that the fragmented nature of the filming can encourage boredom because any interesting narrative trails that develop are lost or not maintained.

Unintentionally perhaps the film makes the case that having loads of technology or impressive playing skills is no substitute for imagination and finding yourself in situations that either test your limits or present songwriting, playing and recording problems. Perhaps it’s too early to say yet whether throwing the three musicians together in a staged set-up will yield any interesting team-ups in future though in the end credits they did have a good time mucking around with Page’s theremin. Something’s bound to come out of that – and I hope it will get loud!