And six year-old newcomer Alex Ambrose (Yula drama school), from Merseyside, plays the young Lennon.
Elizabeth Ranzetti visited the set:
It's 1957 and 15-year-old Paul McCartney is in a cramped kitchen singing the first song he wrote, I Lost My Little Girl . Lounging in the doorway watching him is John Lennon, struggling to reconcile envy and awe.
Lennon's mother, Julia, listens intently and is moved to tears. “Oh, Paul, beautiful,” she says. “You wrote that for her, didn't you? Your mother.” Paul mumbles a response, an awkward teenage boy. Julia knows that McCartney has lost his mother to illness, how deeply it affected him. “It's awful,” she says. “Taken from you at such an early age.”
Lennon can't let this show of maternal tenderness pass by: He seizes the opportunity to wound the mother who abandoned him, and whom he only recently rediscovered. “She had cancer,” he snarls at Julia. “What's your excuse?”
His mother stiffens, gets up, brushes past him. Lennon blows out a stream of smoke, looking only slightly chastened. It is his birthday party, and in the background boys with towering greased hair and girls in circle skirts dance to Hound Dog , the ferocious, world-changing music from across the ocean. Julia, trying to compensate for the years she's lost with her son, has made John a birthday cake in the shape of a record.
“Cut” orders director Sam Taylor-Wood, and Aaron Johnson's shoulders sag a little. The actor, (who plays Lennon), is only 19, and mainly famous to legions of love-struck teenage girls for his role in last year's hit Irish comedy Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging (the screaming girls are something he has in common with Lennon, at least.) The success or failure of this film, Nowhere Boy , is essentially his burden. When he took the part, he couldn't sing or play guitar; he is from a town near London called High Wycombe, which is a very long way, economically and by train, from Liverpool.
Johnson, with lanky body and angular face, has the look of a young Lennon.
The chip on the shoulder and ugly glasses from the National Health Service, both so central to the myth, are present but concealed (the teenaged Lennon loathed wearing his glasses). A makeup woman comes over to adjust his architecturally-impressive hair, known as a duck's ass to North American proto-rockers and a duck's arse to the skiffle-mad boys of Lennon's childhood who imported the rockabilly influenced sound.
“Aaron's going to be a star,” says Nowhere Boy 's producer, Kevin Loader, watching from the side of the set, echoing producers' pronouncements since the first clapboard clapped shut. It is, to say the least, a challenging role. Loader says, “He's playing someone we all think we know everything about. He's got to have a confidence and sense of destiny, but he's also a mixed-up teenager whose family is throwing him all over the place. Aaron's got an emotional understanding, for his age, that's just mind-blowing. And he does stillness very well.”
At first, the thing Johnson didn't do very well was sing. “We knew we had to get the best actor,” says Loader. “The rest could be learned.”
It helps that the film is set during Lennon's formative years, when he was learning to play guitar and sing. As well, it's less about music than about why he became a musician, the underpinnings of his genius and insecurity.
While Nowhere Boy ends with a romance of sorts – Lennon's budding friendship with McCartney (played by Thomas Sangster) – it's really about a triangle, although one with three fractured sides. The person who turned Lennon on to music, and taught him to play banjo, was his rebellious mother, Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who'd left her five-year-old son to be raised by her sister, Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas). Julia died in a traffic accident not long after she and John were reunited, leaving a wound that could never be healed, much as he tried in music (witness the Beatles songs Julia and Mother .)
Back on set, the cast begins rehearsing the party scene, where John's friends from his first band the Quarrymen, including McCartney and George Harrison, are dancing in Julia's living room. “Miming, everyone” calls the first assistant director, then, more fiercely, “Whispering is not miming”
Nowhere Boy comes with quite a musical pedigree: The scriptwriter is Matt Greenhalgh, who also wrote the award-winning biopic Control , about short-lived pop hero Ian Curtis of Joy Division. (This script is based on a memoir by Julia Baird, Lennon's half-sister. Recently, Geoffrey Giuliano, who co-wrote an earlier memoir with Baird, has been telling the press that he will launch a lawsuit to get a cut of the movie's profits. “It's nothing to do with us. I haven't heard from anyone's lawyers,” Loader says.) Director Sam Taylor-Wood is making her feature-film debut, although last year she made Love You More , about two teenagers who love the punk band the Buzzcocks. As a visual artist she's headline fodder in her native Britain, for video works like David Beckham Sleeping (the title of which is self-explanatory).
In order to keep costs down, Nowhere Boy was shot in consecutive 10-hour days, with the cast nipping out only for brief meal and cigarette breaks. The scenes inside Julia's house were shot at London's legendary Ealing studios, where Alec Guinness once ran around in a dress to great comic effect in Kind Hearts and Coronets . A couple of weeks before my set visit they were shooting in Liverpool and ten days later they were in a London graveyard. The budget is tight, only $13-million, the scheduler tighter.
Sangster, familiar from his role as the pining adolescent in Love Actually , sits strumming his guitar left-handed, a famous McCartneyism that he had to learn for the film. The real McCartney has read the script, and will see an early version of the finished film, but hasn't been in touch with the producers.
“It must be a very odd thing for him,” says Loader, who as a boy hung around the set where the Beatles were rehearsing Magical Mystery Tour , hoping in vain for a glimpse. “Imagine if someone were making a movie about your teenage years.”
Nowhere Boy begins with Lennon's birth in 1940 during a bombing raid on Liverpool and ends 20 years later, with the Beatles heading for Hamburg. The late 1950s was a seismic moment in Britain for music, when the arrival of American rock and blues records – brought to Liverpool by the “Cunard Yanks” who worked the ocean liners – set fire to young imaginations across the country. Getting those musical details right, from sourcing period guitars, to building a tea chest bass, to teaching the young actors how to play and sing, was the job of music consultant Ben Parker.
Lennon “would have been pretty terrible at this point in his life,” says Parker. “That was on my side. With Aaron, the challenge was not so much to get him to sound like John, but just to find the bit of singer in him. The show-off.” Did he find it? Parker raises his eyebrows, meaningfully. What 19-year-old actor doesn't have an inner Freddie Mercury?
“I know people will say, ‘Wouldn't John have been better?' But the truth was, at this point, he wouldn't. And that's one of the reasons he brought Paul into the band, because he was so much better. It was quite brave of John, to admit a potential rival.”
There's no doubt who is the leader of the band in the next scene. Johnson's all teenage bravado as he jumps on a table in Julia's living room to give a speech. First, an alpha-dog demonstration: He takes a washboard and smashes it over the head of his friend, Pete, who wants to drop out of the Quarrymen. “Apparently washboard players don't get enough chicks,” he says as Pete clutches his head. “And he feels like a pansy wearing his mum's thimbles.”
The traitor dispensed with, he turns to the rest of the band – the ones who will accompany him to Hamburg and beyond, and the ones who will be left behind. “Where we going to, boys?” And they shout back, joyfully, “to the toppity top, Johnny”