Saturday, 21 August 2010

Liverpool Calling.

There were a lot of criticisms levelled at Nowhere Boy when it opened here last year. Coming, as it did, from acclaimed artist Sam Taylor-Wood, a lot of people were hoping for something edgier, something a little more artistic. Probably coming off the back of films like Hunger and Le Scaphandre et le Papillon by artists of similar stature didn't help. Then, a lot of people had similar criticisms that were heaped on Coco Avant Chanel - why focus a biopic on the time before the subject was famous? Surely there are better stories to tell from that period. After all, that's the John Lennon/Coco Chanel/whoever that we all know and love, right?

The last sentiment I totally disagree with - if anything, we already know that story. All we may know of the earlier period is 'John Lennon grew up in Liverpool, primarily looked after by his Aunt. He was kind of rebellious.' His later life? So well documented that showing it on film isn't really going to provide any insights - we know it all already. Unless you take a different tack and go down the lines of something like I'm Not There, the Bob Dylan biopic (which is coming up on here shortly, when I catch up), which was an incredibly innovative way of presenting a story we may otherwise already know way too well.

The first criticism I can understand, however. Prior to the release of the film I was looking forward to it like... something that is is looking forward to something a lot. I was very excited about seeing what Taylor-Wood would do with this story, how inventive it would be. Then the reviews came out, and I thought 'oh, ok, maybe I won't rush out and see it.' And then I got busy and didn't see it. And then I saw it on DVD and hired it. And that brings us to here. (Please do let me know if you would like blow-by-blow descriptions of how I came about watching every movie. I think that was possibly the most thrilling few sentences I've ever put on paper. Or pixel. Shut up.)

So, I went into this exploration of Lennon's early years not expecting visual fireworks, and that's exactly what I got. What Taylor-Wood has provided, instead, is a solid little look at what it may have been like for our little Beatle (played by Aaron Johnson) growing up with his aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) without knowing his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff.) When he discovers his mother in fact lives close by, he rebels against Mimi, who may have been strict at times but is heartbreakingly portrayed as hoping for only what she considers the best for John, before discovering precisely how unreliable his real mother his - she is prone to fits of depression and despair, irrational anger that forces those near her again and precipitated the need for Mimi to take control of her son's life.

Throughout this John is beginning to spread his musical wings, fashioning himself after Elvis Presley as he puts together a band, including first meeting and collaborating with Paul McCartney (Thomas Sangster.) His music is an outlet as much as an escape route, but his egoism threatens to break everything apart - as we know, however, Paul and John went on to the incredible partnership with George Michael and eventually Ringo Star. And the rest is history. Which is presumably why it is not in this film.

Scott Thomas and Duff have been suitably lauded over the year since the film's release, so I won't really go into it again except to reiterate that they are, indeed, magnificent. Johnson is very good in his portrayal on Lennon, much better than my impression received from his turn in Kick-Ass earlier this year. Sangster has an incredibly intriguing look about him that is almost too distracting - I still remember him very well from his brief stint in Bright Star last year because he just jumped out at me. He is incredibly intense and just cocky enough to put up with Lennon and fight back when necessary. His is a job very well done.

Matt Greenhalgh, who penned the fabulous Control a few years back, was on scripting duty here, and did well, layering the characters nicely and providing depth to all who shared the screen. Goldfrapp duo Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory provided the great accompanying score, which featured pretty much no Lennon tunes - it was nice to see that in a biopic. Of course, it makes perfect sense - you can't feature a song in a biopic before it's written, right? And Seamus McGarvey shot the film very nicely - there was nothing flashy about it, but everything looked... well, right. Like it fitted. There were no visual distractions.

Ultimately, this is probably going to be my criticism here. Yes, the film was good. It was a good little film, well made, well acted, well told. But nothing popped. And when someone like Sam Taylor-Wood is at the helm, you kind of expect it to pop. Even if it pops in a terrible, terrible way. Like, put Andy Warhol at the helm of Lonesome Cowboys and you don't really get a great film, but fuckdamnit it's interesting! It's at least fascinating as an artwork. Sure, there's real money from real investors at stake here, so maybe you don't want it to be a total disaster, but you can take some risks. Steve McQueen's Hunger could have been a total failure. The film had virtually no dialogue, for god's sake. There's, what, a sixteen minute static shot in the middle of it? It could totally have fallen on it's face. It didn't, but without the risks it just would have been another biopic. This was interesting, and yes it turned out terrific. But only because the risk was taken.

In the end, I don't think a desire for what the film may have been in a situation like this should take away from the verdict of what the film was, and what I would have been perfectly content with had the director been someone other than Taylor-Wood. It's a definite 3.5 star film. And ok, while it may have been closer to 5 stars had Taylor-Wood pulled off some risktaking, it may also have fallen to 1 star. But what's better - mediocrity or failure?

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