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Friday, Nov. 5, 2010
Hey, Julia: an ode to John Lennon's mom
It's not a song you'll find on many of The Beatles' best-of compilations, but if you wade deep into the "White Album" of 1968, there at the end of side 2, you'll find a soft, beautifully pensive acoustic number sung by John Lennon entitled "Julia."
For my money, it's one of the best songs Lennon ever penned: Its lyrics echo the impressionism of the better known "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds," describing an "oceanchild" with "seashell eyes" and "windy smile"; but where "Lucy" was all playful psychedelic wonder, "Julia" is more poignant and heartfelt, an ode to a memory, the studio frippery of producer George Martin shorn in favor of a stark voice and guitar arrangement. (In fact, it's the only time Lennon sang and played solo on a Beatles record.)
Many fans will know that Lennon's song was written for his mother, Julia Lennon, who died in a traffic accident when the singer was only 17. Of course, Lennon's feelings about his mother weren't just those of loss, but also abandonment. Just listen to "Mother," on his "Plastic Ono Band" album, where he yowls: "Mother, you had me, but I never had you. I wanted you, but you didn't want me."
"Nowhere Boy," by first-time feature director Sam Taylor-Wood, takes an in-depth look at Lennon's teenage years and his turbulent relationship with absent mother Julia and his aunt Mimi, who actually raised him as a son in Julia's place. The script by Matt Greenhalgh, who also penned the Ian Curtis biopic "Control," hews closely to the account of Lennon's half-sister Julia Baird in her book "Imagine This," with a few glaring exceptions.
We first meet the 15-year-old Lennon (played by Aaron Johnson) as a terror at school, where the headmaster warns him he's "going nowhere fast." His aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas) is a prim and proper type, while his uncle George (David Threlfall) is more easygoing. When George suddenly passes away, John breaks into tears, to which Mimi coldly responds: "Please, let's not be silly. If you want to do that, go to your room."
At George's funeral, John glimpses a woman who, a cousin informs him, is his mother. A further shocking revelation is that this supposedly long-lost parent actually lives 10 minutes across town. John goes to visit her and immediately forms a connection with Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who is a vibrant and sensual contrast to Mimi's stiff-upper-lip propriety. John asks to see her again, and she agrees, on the condition that he doesn't tell Mimi; "This is our secret."
This works quite well as drama, but it's incredibly tarted up for the screen: Lennon met with his mother regularly while growing up, and there simply was no sudden revelation when he was 15. He did grow closer to his mother — who was living with another man, Bobby Dykins, and two out-of-wedlock daughters — as he grew older, but it was no secret to Mimi. While dramatic license is common enough, it's rather disturbing to read the reviews of "Nowhere Boy" and see how many people have swallowed the above scenario as fact.
By mid-film, John is resenting Mimi's incessant exhortations to study harder, while Julia is grooving with him to Screamin' Jay Hawkins records and encouraging his musical gift: John begins to wonder why exactly he is living with Mimi in the first place. It's that mystery the film follows to its climax.
"Nowhere Boy" is at its best when exploring the complex dynamics in this battle of sisters for a son's affection; Scott Thomas deploys a steely reserve, which she shades with hints of affection and concern, while Duff is all manic- depressive intensity, irresistibly charming and fun when on the up side, unreliable and withdrawn when down; excellent performances by both. Johnson does a credible job of capturing Lennon's often caustic wit and general rejection of all authority, but unfortunately bears little resemblance to the well-known singer, which often makes it hard to sustain the illusion.
While it's become rather cliche for musician biopics to insist that great art is born of tragedy, it's true enough that Lennon grew up with pain in his life. How this shaped his music — or, for that matter, the intensity of his relationship with Yoko Ono — is left for the viewer to surmise. A listen again to the haunting chorus of "Julia" would suggest that those memories were never far from his heart.