Everyone knows John Lennon, the smart Beatle, the tough realist opposite the sunnier Paul McCartney in the famous songwriting partnership. Lennon's the one who broke up the world’s greatest Rock & Roll band so that he could go off and attempt to fulfill his utopian musical dreams with Yoko Ono. He was also the first to die — before an assassin’s bullet in New York City.
But imagine his life before the fame and fortune, before he hooked up with his mates and took the world by storm. What circumstances could have given birth to John Lennon, the one and only sainted musical dreamer?
Conceptual artist and photographer Sam Taylor-Wood takes audiences back to the early nowhere days of Lennon (Aaron Johnson) as he chafes under the seemingly loveless rule of his Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), who wants to see that the boy is well-mannered, educated and on his way to being a productive member of society. Mimi’s husband George (David Threlfall) senses the playful free spirit inside the boy rebelling against his wife’s iron-fist. George seeks to provide him with a safe outlet, helping the young John set up a remote speakerbox in his room so that he can listen to the popular music of the day.
After George’s passing, John embarks on a journey to find his mother Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who it turns out has been just around the corner struggling to remain sane as she cares for her new family.
The epic divide between Mimi’s old-school regimentation and Julia’s flirty embrace of life’s sensual beauty threatens to send John over the edge. It's obvious that he sees and appreciates the love that both women have for him and how very necessary both views of the world will likely be as he rushes headlong into the world he is destined to change.
This mythic dynamic, the Oedipal pull of mothers and mother-figures, the attraction and the repulsion, and his sudden attacks against males (especially the young McCartney played here by the baby-faced Thomas Brodie Sangster) who dare to challenge him by inserting themselves into the mix, is a classic Freudian study writ large that extends to the creative team behind the production.
Taylor-Wood brings her very own Lennon connection to the proceedings. One of her early collaborations with artist Henry Bond was a reconfiguration of the Yoko Ono/John Lennon portrait by Annie Leibovitz taken hours before his assassination, with Bond as the nude Lennon across Taylor-Wood as Ono.
As an artist willing to tackle such an iconic photo, she shows that, within art, nothing is sacred, and that means even Lennon’s backstory, which here comes in part from the memoir Imagine This: Growing Up With My Brother John Lennon by Julia Baird, Lennon’s younger half-sister.
The young Julia resides in the margins of these frames, though — Taylor-Wood focuses on Lennon’s tumultuous relationship with his mother Julia. Lennon is seen as an intruder in Julia’s new family, at odds with her husband Bobby Dykins (David Morrissey), who realizes that the more time she spends with her son, nurturing his developing passion for music, the closer she comes to falling over the edge where she will be no good to the family.
As he learns the truth about why he’s been forced to live with Mimi, Taylor-Wood and Thomas, as Aunt Mimi, firmly establish the private moments and traumatic experiences that will dominate the future of popular music.
It is quite a feat, too, considering that the far easier route would have been to litter the screen with cute (and utterly obvious) markers from the songbook of Lennon and McCartney or turn the story into a show-stopping musical tribute like Julie Taymor's Across the Universe.
But there was no need to drive down that well-worn path, because in Thomas and Johnson (who deftly captures the acerbic wit and passion of Lennon, while also disappearing into a likeness that just feels as right as any three perfectly played chords), Taylor-Wood has collaborative partners willing and able to imagine a nowhere boy on the way to becoming a real nowhere man. Grade: A-
Opens Oct. 15. Check out theaters and show times, see the trailer and get theater details here.