The early Beatles, earlier Lennon

Nowhere-Boy-2 Monday’s announcement of an impending auction of a new cache of Beatles items, including a previously unknown song (McCartney’s “Pensioner’s Waltz,” 1968), was international news. I want to hear that song, but of greater interest to the media was the inclusion of some of  John Lennon’s high school detention sheets from 1955 and 1956, which are expected to fetch as much as $4000 per page. No one was particularly surprised at what was in the reports, which showed that Lennon was “a nuisance” and “disruptive”: Shoving other students, making “silly noises during an examination,” and showing “no interest whatsoever” in his studies. He even gave “impudent answers to question,” said one sheet. Who knew at the time that those impudent answers would be charming the international press corps when The Beatles touched down at JFK Airport in February of 1963? Lennon remains a figure of great interest, and deservedly so. My interest in The Beatles goes all the way back, and is unabated. Case in point: The news reminded me of two relatively recent films about The Beatles’ early days that I recently watched. There have been thousands of books about The Beatles, and the list of films is growing, too. The two I just saw – 2009’s fictionalized story of Lennon’s and The Beatles’ high school days, Nowhere Boy, and this year’s documentary about the band’s secretary, Good Ol’ Freda – are more evidence that interest is not declining. But are we now scraping the bottom of the barrel? What’s next, a memoir from Apple Records’ janitorial service? Perhaps. And if Good Ol’ Freda is any indication, it could be worth watching. A Hard Day’s Night this ain’t, but you can see it from here. As a footnote to the band’s epic story, Freda Kelly’s memories of her years with the band – she started with them from the time Brian Epstein started managing them, and saw them regularly from the Cavern Club days through their 1969 breakup – are a pleasure. Sure, we know most of the details, but Kelly’s wry, loving remembrances, unfamiliar pictures from the time, and the memories of others from around the band – and a couple of Beatles as well – continues to round out a picture that some of us will never be able to see enough of. And the film demonstrates, as few other docs have, the very core of The Beatles’ lasting appeal: They were a cottage industry. Every single person involved with the ten-year venture – which has turned into billions of dollars and era-defining media legacy that seems likely outlive everyone involved, and every original fan – came from the most modest of beginnings. In Good Ol’ Freda, we see post-War, provincial England, with its troubled families, lowered expectations and a handful of ordinary blokes – who turned out to be anything but ordinary. Even better is the 2009 feature film Nowhere Boy, a biopic that aims to capture John Lennon’s complicated, tragic, and ultimately, art-inspiring childhood. Written by Matt Greenhalgh and directed by Sam Taylor-Wood, the film is one of the better of a bad genre: The rock star biopic. Whether about Jerry Lee Lewis or Kurt Cobain, Buddy Holly or Jim Morrison, most biopics have been cringe-worthy. Hollywood can’t capture the quicksilver magic of a real rock star, especially those we feel we know. Val Kilmer is Jim Morrison? Dennis Quaid is The Killer? Good luck with that. It doesn’t work. Sure, there have been some good ones, such as Ray, and Walk The Line and…well, there’s got to be another. But mostly, they’re just artificial and ring false. Generally, I hate ’em Nowhere Boy is different. It is about a Beatle, so it has that going for it. But that could have made it even worse than the average biopic. The more we love a star, the less likely we are to enjoy seeing an actor impersonate him or her. What distinguishes Nowhere Boy is that it is about a rock star we don’t know, not really: The Lennon who was dealing with absent, negligent parents, a restrictive guardian and a temperament that was at odds with his provincial surroundings. Nowhere Boy shows Lennon (Aaron Johnson) at school, at home, and gradually discovering rock ‘n’ roll records, then a guitar, then his future partner, Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). It is, of course, fictionalized, so there are pieces missing, time elements out of place, and characterizations that no doubt fall short. And aside from some establishing shots made in Liverpool and Blackpool, most of the scenes were shot around London, or at Ealing Studios. But as with Good Ol’ Freda, what makes Nowhere Boy so engaging, beyond its subject matter, is that it captures a world that is very far away now. Even though it’s not a documentary, I felt that I knew a bit more about the world that  John Lennon and The Beatles came from: Stodgy and repressive at times, but also joyous and promising and not all black-and-white photography. And Anne-Marie Duff and Kristin Scott-Thomas as Lennon’s mother Julia and aunt Mimi are excellent. The depiction of 15 year old Paul McCartney seems congruent with the Sir Paul we know: Confident, charming, open and prodigiously talented, and an excellent balance to – and challenge to – Lennon. This story took place more than 50 years ago, and the world that it depicts, even for those of us who lived in some proximity to it, seems impossibly far away now. Seeing it brought back to life, and feeling more-or-less accurate, was a great pleasure.

– David Watts Barton

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