As his 70th birthday rolls past, John Lennon’s beatification continues. At this rate, his much-quoted brag to be bigger than Jesus will take place this century. Meanwhile, this exquisite small film is clearly the best of the “early days” biopics and a good companion piece to the comparatively slipshod Backbeat, which chronicled Lennon et al. in Hamburg. This “prequel” tells the story of John (Aaron Johnson of Kick-Ass fame, often uncanny) coming of age in Liverpool and meeting up with Paul and George. But his tortured relationship with his real mother (Anne-Marie Duff) is the film’s poignant focus, with Kristin Scott Thomas as Mimi, Lennon’s aunt and surrogate mother. It develops a useful icy objectivity just as the lads prepare to collide into 1960s rock and roll, which they will rule. This elegantly eclectic range of actors adds depth, width, and intelligence to the sensitively rendered tale.
It begins perfectly. The first chord from Hard Day’s Night resounds as Lennon runs through his dream life. But what happens next is far more acute than the usual biopic accumulation of telling details. (Look, there’s Penny Lane!) The story of John, his stepfamily, and real mother makes it clear that music was more than Lennon’s passion. It was his place of refuge.
It’s a dumb title for a movie this smart and full of feeling. But when her film is in full gear, director Sam Taylor-Wood makes you forget that Lennon has become a latter-day savior. What you see is him.