This week, two legendary figures have their legends gilded—and gelded—by well-executed but conventional biopic treatments: John Lennon, whose pre-Beatle adolescence is ploddingly chronicled in Nowhere Boy (the Weinstein Company), and Secretariat, whose record-breaking 1973 Triple Crown victory is suspenselessly re-enacted in Secretariat (Disney). In a strange way, these films make for a kind of thematic double feature. Both of them argue that their subject’s seemingly preternatural gifts were a direct consequence of their relationships with their powerful, doting, often flawed mothers. And both the boy from Liverpool and the colt from Virginia had adoptive mothers who were crucial to their adult success. Lennon’s unstable, depressive birth mother, Julia, farmed him out as a small boy to her stern but loving sister Mimi, who would raise him to adulthood. As for Secretariat, his equine mother, Somethingroyal—about whose emotional stability little is known—entrusted him after weaning to his fanatically dedicated owner, Penny Chenery, who, for reasons that the movie never makes clear, somehow knew that this horse was destined for racing greatness.
Of these two films, I’d be quicker to recommend Nowhere Boy (though Secretariat, as we’ll see, is not without its own curious waxworks charm.) The story of Lennon’s early years is dramatic and painful enough to survive an imperfect retelling, even if you’re already familiar with the stations of the cross. In the space of about one year, Lennon initiated a reconciliation with his long semi-estranged mother; got his first guitar from her as a gift; started a skiffle band called The Quarrymen with his schoolmates; met Paul McCartney and began their collaboration; and learned that his mother, walking home from Aunt Mimi’s house after a visit, had been struck by a car and killed.
With the help of some elision and compression, Nowhere Boy (which was based on a memoir by Lennon’s half-sister, Julia Baird) faithfully documents the events of that year. Aaron Johnson, a hunky 19-year-old Brit last seen as the hero of Kick-Ass, plays the young John as a volatile, occasionally brutish punk whose adoption of a rock ’n’ roll attitude long preceded any actual interest in playing music. (According to many accounts by the older John Lennon, this portrait isn’t far from the truth.) Like the sullen hero of a British postwar kitchen-sink drama, Lennon craves escape from his suffocating middle-class milieu, emblematized by the stiff-backed Aunt Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas, in one of the casually perfect performances she’s come to specialize in). Young John skips school, picks fights, and steals singles from a record store. His mates, including his best friend and fellow Quarryman Pete Shotton (Josh Bolt) follow him around like puppies, and Johnson is charismatic enough to make you understand why, even when the script can’t make up its mind whether to show him as a carefree cutup or a suffering soul.
As Julia Lennon, Anne-Marie Duff lays the Oedipal backstory on a bit thick. I can accept that Lennon was more than a little in love with his elusive, fun-loving mother—his ethereal love song “Julia” attests to that—but scene after scene shows her rubbing up against him and all but purring like a cat in heat. The baby-faced Thomas Sangster nearly steals the show in the much smaller role of Paul McCartney. (Sangster, 20 years old in real life, plays McCartney at age 15 but looks around 12.) A couple of scenes exist to illustrate the difference between teenage John and teenage Paul: As anxious, insecure John skips school and picks fights to prove his bona fides as a rocker, Paul, a defiantly uncool music geek, is quietly rocking out. I’m not up enough on my Beatles lore to know how accurate that contrast is, but dramatically, it feels right. Nowhere Boy itself at times errs on the side of hagiography, but I’ll admit that when the newly named Beatles took off for Hamburg at the end, I sort of wished there was a second chapter coming.
There’s not much I can add to Andrew O’Hehir’s marvelous reading of Secretariat as a fantasy fable for Tea Partiers nostalgic for a prelapsarian America that never existed. I’m not sure I saw all that in the movie, but honestly, I found it hard to pay attention long enough to see much at all. Secretariat is a by-the-numbers sports-hero picture with an inexpressive hero (horses look great in motion, but they can’t carry a close-up) and a preordained outcome. The only reason we’ve heard of Secretariat is because he was the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown, and he set speed records in the first and third races that have yet to be broken. It would take an even greater miracle to lend suspense to this animal’s smooth ascent from pampered thoroughbred to freakishly gifted champion to long-lived breeding stud.
So the story focuses on Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery (Diane Lane), who like her horse has lucked out in the lottery of life. She’s a well-off Denver housewife with four children and a husband (Dylan Walsh), who, after her mother dies, goes back to her parents’ Virginia horse farm to help out her senile father (Scott Glenn—is Scott Glenn really old enough to play senile already?). After losing a coin toss with another owner, Penny wins the rights to the least-valuable foal in the stable, the offspring of a stallion with speed but no stamina.
But somehow, in the steel-trap brain that dwells beneath that frosted beehive, Penny knows that this oversized, stubborn colt has what it takes to become the greatest racehorse in history. So for the next two years, Penny devotes herself full-time to the horse’s care and training, with the help of her father’s stalwart secretary Elizabeth (Margo Martindale) and the horse’s groom and handler Eddie (Nelsan Ellis, in an unpleasantly retro Uncle Tom-ish role). John Malkovich is the colt’s colorful trainer, Lucien Laurin, who communicates his French-Canadian-ness by delivering random lines in unsubtitled, Malkovich-accented French.
Diane Lane is, as always, appealing to watch, and the script does its best to load Penny down with some adversity to overcome: Her father’s farm may have to be sold, leaving her with only her own nice house back in Denver! She really misses her kids when she’s out on the racing circuit! The country club where the racing crowd has lunch won’t allow women! But in the end, the only real thrill in Secretariat comes from watching horses run. As any viewer of Westerns can attest, that pleasure does go a long way, and there are some inventively filmed jockey’s-eye-view race scenes, along with a strangely ecstatic moment in which Penny and Eddie soap up and groom Secretariat to the accompaniment of a gospel soundtrack. My advice: If you’re looking for a nostalgic, inspirational horse-race biopic that doesn’t isolate itself completely from economic, historical, and racial reality, go rent Seabiscuit.