Nowhere Boy posterOrange lightAs a teenager John Lennon was a hot-headed delinquent who incessantly drank and smoke, pilfered records, head butted his friends, flashed his willy and looked like a buff Calvin Klein model thirsty for a protein shake.

At least that’s how he was according to director Sam Taylor Wood’s bold biopic Nowhere Boy, which presents a vision of a young pre-Beatles Lennon that is a long, long way from the frail bookish-looking junior beatnik most of us had in mind.

The film was adapted from a memoir written by Julia Baird (Lennon’s half sister) so presumably there’s at least a modicum of truth in it, but like a lot of musician biopics the film plays out in a celebratory hyper reality where the rhythms required for interesting fiction threaten to undo the story’s grasp of reality. The characters feel like to-be-continued personalities, not quite real people – more like incomplete storytelling devices, footsteps on route to the legends they become.

The story tracks Lennon’s apparently turbulent years as a 15 and 16-year-old as he reconnects with his estranged mother, rebels against his aunt/guardian, dabbles with girls, starts a band and generally acts like a hell-raising juvie. The point is made, underlined, capitalised and lit with flood lights that music is the one thing that connects with Lennon, the one thing the doc ordered to level out his impetuousness and give his life direction. We’re bludgeoned with the message that, with music, Lennon takes a sad song – his life – and makes it better.

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Nowhere Boy is a highly strung drama, loud and heavy, the primary cast perpetually tinkering on the precipice of emotional immolation. The performances are uniformly strong but some of the parts are miscast. Someone less physically imposing than Aaron Johnson, who is obviously a talented actor, may have made a better fit for the crucial rule – Daniel Radcliffe (sans wand) comes to mind. Kristin Scott Thomas (note: this review originally – and absolutely falsely – credited this role to Kristen Stewart, which is a) an insult to Kristin Scott Thomas and b) further evience that Twilight has irreversibly rottened my mind [thank you Lynden for observing my mental deterioration]) is strong as Lennon’s tightly wound prudish aunty, but appears to be wired to a different voltage than everyone else. And the performance of Thomas Sangster as a 15-year-old Paul McCartney is bizarre, Sangster inhabiting the role as if he were a wise middle aged music maestro trapped inside the body of a pubescent.

Wood directs some scenes with lacerating style, hitting the mark emotionally, but a lighter, defter touch could have made the film more palatable. Relationships between the characters, while frequently compelling, are inflated to near bursting point. The dramatic situations feel too sharply contrived and too conveniently staged, and a subtle air of self-congratulation wafts throughout Nowhere Boy, echoed even in its geddit? title.

Nowhere Boy’s Australian theatrical release date: December 26, 2009.