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October 17, 2010

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Life of a Liverpool lad

WE'RE so used to thinking of the Beatles and John Lennon as finished products: the band broken up 40 years ago, Lennon shot dead 10 years later; the epic story now hallowed, practically consecrated into marble.

How refreshing, then, to go back before the beginning with "Nowhere Boy" and see Lennon as a brilliant brat. A lusty, angry, quixotic, defiant, naive and yearning kid, without all the baggage that musical canonization placed on the guy's shoulders.

Sure, things that were little incidents at the time - Lennon's first meetings with Paul McCartney and George Harrison, or his mom showing him how to play banjo - become momentous for the audience, knowing the musical revolution that this boy will help orchestrate.

Yet first-time director Sam Taylor-Wood and her collaborators do a lovely job carving out this formative slice of Lennon's life, without mythologizing or hanging a nascent halo around the youngster's head. The story flows so organically that when the tragedy that shattered the young Lennon finally occurs, it's a shock to the audience, though even passing Beatles fans know it's coming.

At times, Aaron Johnson (star of this year's superhero comedy "Kick-Ass") makes a wonderful teen John, capturing a mischievous rebel and a pained youth torn between the stern aunt who raised him and the sparkling mother who inspired him.

"Nowhere Boy" came out a year ago in Britain, where it deservedly brought British Academy Awards nominations for Kristin Scott Thomas as Lennon's Aunt Mimi and Anne-Marie Duff as his mom, Julia.

The film opened in the United States the day before what would have been Lennon's 70th birthday, and his widow, Yoko Ono, has been supportive, calling it "very truthful." McCartney has voiced some gripes about the movie's accuracy, and while they quibbled about details, four other members of Lennon's early band - the Quarrymen - offered gracious testimonials, saying it caught the essence of their pal and the 1950s Liverpool where he came of age.

"Nowhere Boy" follows John from 1955 through his departure five years later for Hamburg, Germany, where the Beatles honed their music in marathon club gigs.

At 15, John is presented as whip-smart but unruly, living with beloved Uncle George (David Threlfall) and Scott Thomas' Mimi, who had been his loving but frosty mother hen for the previous decade.

Amid a war of wills with Mimi, John rediscovers his flighty mum Julia, who had given him up as a young boy, setting Lennon off on a lifetime of abandonment issues he explored in his music.

Yet for John in his mid-teens, as he struggles to find focus for the creative turmoil roiling through his head, Duff's passionate, impulsive Julia becomes a muse, turning him on to music and becoming a further obstacle to Mimi's aims of raising her nephew into a proper young man.

"Nowhere Boy" could have devolved into a superficial tug-of-war between schoolmarm Mimi and flibbertigibbet Julia. But working off the screenplay by Matt Greenhalgh - who also wrote the film biography "Control," about Joy Division singer Ian Curtis - Scott Thomas and Duff create full-blooded portraits of the two women, each capable, in her own way, of bottomless love, petty spite and everything in between.

John's two wildly different domestic lives - upright and uptight with Mimi, loose and lively with Julia and her common-law husband (David Morrissey), who views her son as an interloper in his own family - are the heart of the film.

The moments that often resonate the most, though, are the Beatles moments. The re-creation of the first Quarrymen gig is a small thrill to watch. And while Thomas Brodie Sangster initially is jarring as McCartney, given that he bears no resemblance to young Paul, it's fun to see the first two Beatles bonding and sparring as kids.

Given how Lennon's life has been picked over by journalists and music historians, the film may not offer new insights into what made him the man he was. But it's a sweet and touching love story to Lennon, and for many fans, that love is all you'll need to get in tune with "Nowhere Boy."


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