Original soundtracks are a mixed bag. The focus of hip film-makers, they can lift a bad film (see: New Moon) or add indie credibility to great films (see: Where The Wild Things Are). There is a growing niche, however, for films that use music for their subject material. Over the past few years we have been blessed with Ray, Control, and numerous other brilliant biopics. Nowhere Boy is the latest addition to the pack, focusing on one John Lennon.
For her full length directorial debut, Sam Taylor-Wood chose an interesting period of Lennon’s life, his adolescence. The film explores Lennon’s early days, starting in 1955 when he was 15. At the age of 17, he started The Quarrymen, a group which eventually spawned The Beatles; the rest is history, and she wisely avoids using any of the Beatles’ material, instead opting to explore the events that brought John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison together as teenagers.
Nowhere Boy OST is a rock and roll album at heart, but also draws influence from rhythm, blues, and country. All the material is taken from the film’s period (circa 1950’s), and opens with Jerry Lee Lewis’ bonafide classic, “Wild One”. Things slow down for “Mr Sandman” by Dickie Valentine, but the album already begins to exude a sense of charm. The pedigree of this project is particularly impressive — screenwriter Martin Greenhalgh wrote the adaptation for Control, and Yoko Ono has already given the film her blessing.
Elvis Presley makes a brief cameo with his cover of “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, a 12 bar blues track originally penned by Jesse Stone. All are ultimately eclipsed, however, by the haunting Screamin’ Jay Hawkins on “I Put A Spell On You”. Since covered by such diverse artists as Nina Simone, Estelle, and Queen Latifah, it was a smart choice to stick with the original version, which preserves the haunting delivery.
Just as Sam Riley and the rest of the band recorded their own versions of Joy Division’s hits for Control, Aaron Johnson (who plays Lennon) and company recorded their interpretations of The Quarrymen’s tracks. Appearing on the album as The Nowhere Boys (sic), they do a remarkable job of recreating the tracks. On “That’ll Be The Day” the differences are marginal; the music is timeless, and without prior knowledge, the “modern” tracks do not stick out.
Both “Twenty Flight Rock” and “Be Bop A Lula” hold significance as two of the songs McCartney played to Lennon when they first met. Lennon, impressed by the impromptu performance, invited Paul McCartney to join the band.
On “Hound Dog”, Big Mama Thornton reminds us of the soul that is missing in most music these days. Aaron Johnson again takes the spotlight on “Hello Little Girl” a song that Lennon wrote for the infamous Decca audition. Decca Records turned the band down, proving to be one of the biggest mistakes in musical history. Apparently, the Beatles had “no future in show business”.
The soundtrack closes with “Mother”, a lo-fi track that actually speaks to both of Lennon’s parents: “Mother, you had me/but I never had you…Father, you left me/but I never left you“. It’s an emotional end to an otherwise upbeat album.
Whilst I haven’t seen the film, early screenings have been full of praise, particularly towards the amount of heart put into the biopic. The same care is taken with the soundtrack, and it’s hard to take anything away from the considered tracklist. Blending hits from the era with freshly recorded interpretations of Lennon’s music is an inspired move, and Nowhere Boy OST is a fitting ode to one of music’s best songwriters.