TWO NEW FILMS bookending the life of John Lennon, who would have turned seventy on October 9, elide his momentous trajectory through the 1960s. Although Nowhere Boy (2009), a fictional movie directed by the artist Sam Taylor-Wood, shows how Lennon (Aaron Johnson) met Paul McCartney and George Harrison and brings him to the eve of their band’s departure for Hamburg, the Beatles aren’t mentioned by name. The film nods ironically to the Liverpool glory years in a scene in which drunken young John is turned away from the Cavern Club, but it is concerned with something more primal than creativity and fame: how Lennon’s troubled mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), fought a battle of wills for emotional possession of her son against her stable older sister, his widowed Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas).
The emotional upheavals Nowhere Boy depicts see the emergence of the cruel and self-destructive side of Lennon’s personality—chickens that came home to roost in his thirties, according to LENNONYC (2010), which was made by Michael Epstein for PBS’s American Masters series. This documentary focuses on the ex-Beatle’s Manhattan years—and his eighteen-month “lost weekend” in Los Angeles—when he fought not only his personal demons but the FBI’s attempt to have him deported for his antiwar activism, before he settled into a new groove as a mellowed musician and devoted family man. Together the movies compellingly weave an intertextual web, the central strand of which is Lennon’s lifelong need for a mother or mother substitute.
Nowhere Boy begins auspiciously, marrying the first clanging chord of 1965’s “Help!” with a shot of the schoolboy Lennon cavorting around Liverpool’s colonnaded Saint George’s Hall. Johnson adequately captures his coltishness, irreverence—later boorishness—and vulnerability, if not the viperish wit that Ian Hart brought to the young Lennon in The Hours and Times (1991) and Backbeat (1994). Flashbacks reveal that Mimi and her husband adopted five-year-old John when Julia and his father, Alfred, asked the boy the impossible on their separation—to choose between them. Seeking out Julia, when he’s seventeen, John is all but seduced by her: Sometimes clad in a red coat that screams “scarlet woman,” she flirts outrageously with him, calls him her “dream,” tells him that rock ’n’ roll means “sex,” and installs him in the home she shares with her lover and younger daughters. Genteel Mimi fights to keep him, upping the ante when she buys the neophyte rocker an expensive guitar for his birthday. Dreadful scenes between the sisters bring him close to the breaking point; then comes rapprochement, and tragedy. There’s time amid these vicissitudes for John and a teddy girl to fornicate in a park, but the fascination here is with John not as a leader of men or as a Casanova but as a boy at the mercy of well-meaning but needy mothers.
Given Lennon’s wayward streak, Nowhere Boy is oddly safe and functional. Taylor-Wood departs from formalism only in the sequence in which John, taught banjo chords by the musical Julia, strums thoughtfully as her family rushes around him at almost time-lapse speed. Though a doc, LENNONYC is more style-conscious, deploying some fancy curlicued graphics and images of the newspaper packaging of the Some Time in New York City album morphing into video. Driven by interviews with associates, including Elton John and David Geffen, and featuring wonderful footage of the Lennons wandering shyly in Central Park, it is otherwise solid, thorough, and mercifully nonhagiographic. Ono, who supported the film’s production, is interviewed, but so is May Pang, whom Ono enlisted as Lennon’s paramour when Ono separated from him after he humiliated her by sleeping with another woman at a party. Dependent on Ono, Lennon drank heavily during his LA exile and reunited with her in New York in early 1975. The birth of their son Sean later that year led to his five-year holiday from the music business, during which he reinvented himself as hands-on father (in a way he never was to Julian Lennon during Beatlemania), house husband, and baker of bread. In 1980, he recorded the Double Fantasy album and was murdered three weeks after its release. (The film decorously refuses to name his killer, Mark Chapman, but the pall of that crime hangs heavily over it.)
Listening to the songs on Double Fantasy—which include “(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Woman,” “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy),” and “Dear Yoko”—it’s hard to reconcile them with such randy numbers as “Twist and Shout” and “Please Please Me”; similarly, it’s hard to reconcile the confused rebel of Nowhere Boy with the contented forty-year-old Lennon at the end of LENNONYC. Though Christopher Eccleston played John from 1967 to 1971 in this year’s British TV drama Lennon Naked, what happened in between Taylor-Wood’s and Epstein’s films—four thousand days in the life—is an intimate epic as yet unattempted.
The US theatrical premiere run of Nowhere Boy begins Thursday, October 8, at Film Forum in New York. LENNONYC was screened during the 2010 New York Film Festival and premieres nationally on PBS on Monday, November 22, at 9 PM.