Quite without planning it, I ended up watching a double-feature of music biopics last night. While I would normally write them up separately, it was more interesting how these two played off of one another in the watching.
So this ended up as a smack-down between contemporaries John Lennon and Ian Dury. Musically, their influence and popularity was more serial than concurrent, but they were only a few years apart in age. For the record, I like both performers and listened to their music and still do, so this wasn’t about whether I appreciated them. However, the movies took very, very different approaches to telling their stories.
Nowhere Boy tells a great story about a kid and his family. That this kid grows up to be The John Lennon is actually rather beside the point of the script. That it tells Lennon’s back-story is a nice-to-have for those that knew him, and for those that didn’t it really wouldn’t matter. In fact, the only nods to Beatles music is in the opening chord in the movie (from Hard Day’s Night) and a slight nod to what might have been the genesis of Hello or I Wanna Hold Your Hand, depending on which way it went and a very quick, funny moment at The Cavern. So what you really get out of this a well-done family drama of Liverpool in the 50s and 60s.
S&D&R&R on the other hand is an homage to Dury and the roots of his art which overlaps completely with Lennon’s life. Perfectly acceptable approach for anyone who is fascinated by the punk icon and wants to know more. But you really have to want to know more and care about the real performer to make it through the flick. Serkis does an amazing job in the film, as do all of his supporting cast, but the story just isn’t compelling. It is part retrospective of his climb and part music video trying to show how his brain might have worked. All interesting, but not really a stand-alone movie despite the inter-cut remembrances of abandonment and recovering from polio. What is frustrating was that this very interesting life became more of a clips show with almost no emotional investment.
When recapping a life in fictional format, it is always important to tell a story, even at the expense of the details of the truth. The truth of the story is what matters. Learning that lesson is one of the hardest for writers and artists in general. At the core of every tale is the truth of what your story is about.. all choices must serve that truth. The truth in Nowhere Boy was served by concentrating on his aunt and mother. The truth in S&D&R&R was lost… I think it was to talk about turning disadvantages that, especially in that time period, would have crushed most people into fuel for expression. I think. But it just didn’t come together.
If you love Drury and the Blockheads music and want to know more about their rise and fall, you might well enjoy this. Me, as much as I appreciate the music, I zapped through the last half of the movie to see just the performances because the movie left me wanting. Whether or not you like John Lennon or the Beatles, but you enjoy a solid movie about a rather screwed up family and the outcomes, you’ll like Nowhere Boy.