Middle class hero
John Lennon wasn’t a working class hero after all, according to a new film by Sam Taylor-Wood. The one-time Young British Artist tells Donald Clarke how she was drawn to the former Beatle, whose troubled early life mirrored her own, then fell in love with
I T SEEMS hard to believe now, but, well into the 1970s, large swathes of the world’s population felt The Beatles were nothing more than a passing fad. Indeed, it was hard to find anybody born before 1930 who believed the band’s records would endure for another decade. Yet here we are. Recently remastered CDs of the White Album join copies of The Beatles: Rock Band game beneath the world’s Christmas trees.
In the mid-1990s, you encountered a similar class of unimpressed huffing about that huddle of British controversialists known as the Young British Artists. Unfortunately for the red-faced reactionaries, Tracy Emin and Damian Hirst still crop up on our televisions. Rachel Whiteread continues to deliver beautifully perplexing sculptures. Steve McQueen made the stunning movie Hunger. And the smart, amiable Sam Taylor-Wood – here’s where the two threads link up – has just directed a lovely film about John Lennon’s early life entitled Nowhere Boy.
“It was irritating when we were labelled the YBAs,” she remembers with a chuckle. “Obviously these bubbles do often burst, but many of us have stayed as powerful artists and continue to do good work. That is satisfying.”
Nowhere Boy, for all its charms, does not look like the work of a director who came up through gallery-based video art. Whereas Hunger, McQueen’s study of Bobby Sands’s final decline, features long, near-abstract shots that refuse to further the narrative, TaylorWood’s picture, shot by Armagh’s own Seamus McGarvey, is a comparatively conventional piece of work. The cinematographer and director find odd, garish colours in the confectionary and packaging of the late 1950s, but the picture never even hints at avant-garde rumination.
“Yes, I have had some criticism levelled at me about that,” she says. “But I felt that there was no room in this story for me to get too indulgent about my art. I felt I had to keep telling the story and any effort to cut in beautiful long shots of grass or whatever just felt like I was cheating. Ninety-seven minutes isn’t that long to tell such an intense story.”
The “intense story” details Lennon’s complex relationship with his troubled mother Julia and his stable, bourgeois Aunt Mimi. Initially a directionless, hyperactive wiseacre, Lennon grew up with his aunt – who, sadly, outlived him – in a middle-class suburb of Liverpool.
The script suggests that Julia, who lived just round the corner, may have been severely bi-polar. It is, in many ways, a sad story, but Taylor-Wood paints Lennon’s upbringing as less gritty than songs such as Working Class Hero might suggest. After all, the impeccably posh Kristin Scott Thomas plays Aunt Mimi.
“Yes, there is a common misconception about him,” she agrees. “He came from a posher suburb of Liverpool and Mimi was an aspirational figure. He was essentially brought up middle class. It was Paul who lived in that world of gritty working-class housing estates. There is a patronising view
“Yoko hoped we would understand the John she knew and loved. When she saw it she loved it and sent me a note that made we weep”
of the north that it’s all grim. I wanted to get away from that and paint it as an exciting environment – the musical centre of the world for a while.”
Taylor-Wood admits that it took her a while to grasp that she was engaging with “one of the great icons of all time”. In conversation, she exhibits a blithe can-do spirit – bolstered, perhaps, by two successful battles with cancer – that spreads cheering degrees of warmth about the room. She seems neither arrogant nor over-confident, but she appears prepared to tackle any task without quivering in trepidation. Consider her dealings with Yoko Ono and the rest of the Lennon family.
“I sent out e-mails to members of all the family before making this film,” she says. “I asked them if they wanted to make contribu- tions at the script stage. I got a note from Yoko, but she kept very much at arm’s length during production. I showed her some shots because we really needed to use John’s song Mother. She’d never given the rights before, but somehow I never doubted she would give them to us. And she did.”
Of course, both Ono and Taylor-Wood move in the same world. Yoko Ono was, indeed, a pioneer in the class of conceptual art that so absorbed the YBAs.
“We had met in the art world in passing,” Taylor-Wood says. “But this was different. She didn’t know what kind of film we were going to make. She hoped we would understand the John she knew and loved. When she saw it she loved it and sent me a note that made we weep. That was a great endorsement on a personal and practical level.”
Glancing at that synopsis of Nowhere Boy, it’s hard not to assume that Taylor-Wood saw autobiographical parallels between Lennon’s early life and her own. She seems to have had a troubled childhood. Born in south London in 1967, Sam said goodbye to her dad, a chartered surveyor, at nine when he left home to become (no, really) treasurer of the Hell’s Angels. A few years after that, her mother, now married to a yoga instructor and living in some class of commune, walked out and left her with her stepdad. Subsequently – in an incident with conspicuous echoes in Nowhere Boy – she saw her mother pulling down the shutters in a nearby house. Taylor-Wood had no idea the woman lived in the area.
“I think I did see some autobiographical elements,” she says. “That was among many other reasons I was drawn to the project. I understand that notion of retreating into your imagination to escape. I knew where he as coming from and where his creative spirit came from. Yes my mum did disappear when I was 16 and, yes, she was just round the corner and I didn’t know. But that was just a few months. In Lennon’s life the trauma lasted for years.”
What about that apparent hippie upbringing? Many folk who went through that sort of experience – living in a commune with compulsory yoga and mung beans – reacted by rushing towards conformity. A surprising number of hippie children changed their names from Lotus to Julian and went into merchant banking.
“No. That was never in my mind,” she laughs. “But I think did rebel against my upbringing in my own way. Iam incredibly strict and full of boundaries with my children. That does come from growing up with the opposite. I have very old-fashioned values, but, at the same time, I live in the moment and adhere to my own rules.”
Taylor-Wood attended Goldsmiths College in south London with a major tranche of the gang that was to become the YBAs. Damien Hirst, Steve McQueen, Mark Wallinger and Sarah Lucas were all at the institution. In retrospect, the group had little else in common bar a tendency towards the conceptual. Hirst chopped up his sharks. McQueen made wry black-and-white films. Often working with McGarvey, Taylor-Wood enjoyed filming actors in apparent states of distress, hysteria or artistic transport.
“I don’t think that we were a movement,” she says. “It’s hard to see why we were grouped together as YBAs. The only thing we had in common was we were from a similar age group. The focus came because the work was powerful and creative and fresh and new. It was very exciting to be part of.”
Taylor-Wood’s life appeared to be drifting towards the idyllic – married to art dealer Jay Jopling, the first of two children growing up nicely – when, in 1997, she was diagnosed with cancer of the colon. A mere three years later, having only just been given the all clear, she contracted (apparently unrelated) breast cancer and underwent a mastectomy. Those sorts of experiences change a person.