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Backbeat (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jun 4, 2021




Starring Sheryl Lee, Steven Dorff, Ian Hart, Gary Bakewell, Chris O’Neill, Scot Williams, Kai Wiesinger, Gertan Klauber, Marcelle Dupruy, John White, Bernard Merrick, Nicholas Tennant, Finola Geraghty, Rob Spendlove, Charlie Caine, Jennifer Ehle, Frieda Kelly, Paul Humpoletz, Christiana Uriarte, Abigail Wrapson, Galit Herskovitz, Stephan Grothgar and Lynn Lowton.

Screenplay by Iain Softley, Michael Thomas and Stephen Ward.

Directed by Iain Softley.

Distributed by Polygram Filmed Entertainment.  101 minutes.  Rated R.

It’s not easy to put a different spin on one of the best known stories of the Twentieth Century.  Writer and director Iain Softley was able to do that with his 1994 film Backbeat by telling the story of the early days of the Beatles in a way that the Fab Four are only supporting characters in their own saga.

Instead, the film focuses on Stuart Sutcliffe, the forgotten fifth Beatle, the band’s original bassist.  Sutcliffe wasn’t the best player ever, in fact Paul McCartney was a better bassist, but Stu had the look of a rock star.  He was classically handsome, he had the devil-may-care attitude, he dressed well and he could pull off sunglasses in a dark club.  Sutcliffe was also an artist, a man whose painting was as important to him as music was to bandmate John Lennon.

Lennon idolized Sutcliffe, for he envied Stu’s polished good looks and his ability to blend into every situation.  Lennon felt that his image was more important to the fledgling success than his lack of musical talent.  (There are occasional hints to a homoerotic aspect in their relationship, but their love seemed to be more fraternal.)

The film focuses on the 1960-1961 pre-stardom days of the Beatles when they traded upon their local popularity to get an extended gig on the infamous Reeperbahn in Hamburg.  When they got there, it turned out they were playing at a strip club.  (They had to hide the fact that George Harrison was only seventeen.)

As the band was making it’s first little baby steps towards stardom — gaining a rabid live following, meeting execs and even getting a gig backing up Tony Sheridan on a version of the standard “My Bonnie.”  Ironically, their first big break in recording was for a singer who is now a footnote in history only because his band on one single ended up being the biggest rock band ever.

In this germinating period, the group met two people who were instrumental in the band’s early image — a couple named Klaus Voormann and Astrid Kirchherr.  Klaus introduced the band to local scenemakers.  Astrid was a photographer who took the first photos of the group.  She was also instrumental in the image of the band, giving them fashion tips and suggesting the famous Beatles hairdo.

Quickly Stu and Astrid fall in love.  The whole thing becomes sort of an extended love triangle — Stu and Klaus trying to win Astrid, and… more importantly… a tug-of-war between Astrid and John Lennon over influence on Stu.

Eventually, Stu decided to leave the band to stay in Hamburg to be with Astrid and concentrate on his art.  Unlike Peter Best, the band’s original drummer who is here but soon gets let go to be replaced by Ringo Starr, Sutcliffe decided on his own to leave a band that would soon become the world’s biggest.  Sadly, it turned out that he would not have had the chance to become a part of the band’s stardom, anyway, but that just adds to the dramatic effect of the story.

Stephen Dorff is fantastic as Stu Sutcliffe.  In fact, after a decade of subpar work in really bad films since this movie was released it is refreshing to remember he actually is a talented actor.  Sheryl Lee (who was then red hot from having played Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks) is charming as Astrid.

However, the greatest performance was by Ian Hart as John Lennon.  Hart, who had previously played the Beatle a few years earlier in The Hours and the Times has the character nailed.  In a couple of interviews in the bonus features of the film, they quote a story by Lennon’s estranged son Julian in which his mother told him that if he wanted to meet his father he should watch the movie.  That type of story is usually tired hype, but here it is legitimate.  Ian Hart IS John Lennon.  It’s sad that Hart never got the stardom that he deserved from this, though he has worked rather steadily since.  Interestingly, he seems to have made a bit of a specialty of playing real characters.  Most recently, he was seen as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Finding Neverland.

The music is spectacular, covers of a bunch of fifties classics that the Beatles used to do in the early years which were recorded by “The Backbeat Band,” a super-group of then-giant alt-rockers including Dave Grohl of Nirvana (and later of Foo Fighters), David Pirner of Soul Asylum, Mike Mills of REM, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, Don Fleming of Gumball, Don Was of Was (Not Was) and Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs.  (1/05)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: February 5. 2005


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