'Nowhere Boy': Defining a Generation by Its Hair

Playing a young John Lennon, Aaron Johnson has the hair moves.

Oct. 8, 2010— -- Move over, Robert Pattinson. There's new hair in town.

The well-coiffed competition is Aaron Johnson, the 20-year old British actor who portrays young John Lennon in the new movie "Nowhere Boy." A professional actor from the age of 12, Johnson has had roles in this year's "Kick-Ass" and in the recent HBO television movie "Temple Grandin."

"Nowhere Boy," set in Liverpool in the mid-1950s, explores the dynamic between the then 15-year-old Lennon and the two women in his life. One was Mimi (Kristin Scott Thomas), the strict, stiff-upper-lip woman who raised him. The other was Mimi's younger and free-spirited sister Julia (Anne-Marie Duff), who was actually John's biological mother. Julia loved rock-and-roll and passed it on to her son.

The movie covers this music trajectory – we even see John finally meet a neighborhood lad named Paul McCartney (Thomas Brodie Sangster). And, as we know from that period, you can't have music without a bit of a hair fetish.

Don't underestimate the role that hair plays in giving a movie an air of authenticity, say the experts.

"When you create a movie character within a specific period in history, the costumes, makeup and hairstyles all work together to create a certain silhouette that conveys that period," said Sandra Exelby, a veteran feature-film makeup artist and hairdresser, and chairman of the National Association of Screen Make-Up Artists and Hairdressers in the U.K. "In the case of John Lennon, the hairstyle gives you a feel for how and where he grew up."

For the viewer, one of the movie's greatest pleasures is watching Lennon preening his locks. The more involved with music he becomes, the more he wields his comb, molding his pompadour into shape or allowing a few locks of hair to fall onto his forehead.

"We called those ringlets falling onto the forehead 'kiss curls,'" said Exelby, noting that young English boys who listened to music knew about the look from photos of American performers Gene Vincent and Bill Haley and the Comets. "That hairstyle conveyed a very strong 'Rebel without a Cause' feeling, in contrast with short military haircuts that had been more typical. England was in the midst of post-World War II change, and feeling the first bit of prosperity. It was a very exciting time for a young man."

"John's new focus on his more rock-and-roll hairstyle is also an expression of his maturity as he becomes more independent of his aunt and experiences the influence of art school," said Jeremy Woodhead, hair and makeup designer for "Nowhere Boy." "From fourteen to sixteen, he develops less of a schoolboy look right before the formation of the Beatles."

The hair also set the sexual tone.

"John was always considered the sexy Beatle, taking the lead, being more physical and pushing the boundaries," said Woodhead. "In contrast, in the film, Paul seems much sweeter and more innocent, while John is more decisive."

Aaron Johnson as Young John Lennon in 'Nowhere Boy'

Researching the period to pinpoint a hairstyle is critical, said Exelby, who did hair and makeup for the movies "Bugsy Malone" and "Highlander."

"In the past, finding examples of the style necessitated going to reference libraries, museums, and checking out portraits and history books," she said. "Conducting research used to be time-consuming and difficult, but now access to online resources makes the task much easier. There's no excuse not to do it."

The twentieth-century mid-fifties period might be a bygone era to some, but not to hair people. The website CoolMensHair.com includes a feature on "How to Make Every Night Twilight with a Robert Pattinson Hair Style," and has some how-to's on how to style and comb a pompadour.

As with most trends, the greaser look didn't last long. After the Beatles started performing in Hamburg, Germany, the lads wanted to get away from their "rockabilly and defiant British rock-and-roll look in favor of a more bohemian one," said Kevin Murphy, a hairstylist based in Melbourne, Australia, who works on Vogue magazine shoots and owns a hair-product line. When the group signed with manager Brian Epstein, said Exelby, they opted for their famous mop-top haircuts that would fall right back into place after they tossed their heads.

The rest, as they say is history. "Nowhere Boy" charts part of that early journey – the music and the hair. Both the songs and the coiffure live on.