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‘Backbeat’

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 22, 1994

 


Director:
Iain Softley
Cast:
Stephen Dorff;
Sheryl Lee;
Ian Hart;
Kai Wiesinger;
Jennifer Ehl;
Gary Bakewell;
Chris O'Neill;
Scot Williams
R
Under 17 restricted


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At a time when there's much talk about a Beatles reunion, Iain Softley's vivid "Backbeat" celebrates the union.

A musical creation myth, it captures the Beatles on the verge of Beatlemania, a pre-Fab Five ready to elevate from the earnest assimilation of American rock and rhythm and blues to the consummate artistry of their own original songs, none of which is heard in "Backbeat." That's a brave commercial decision, but an accurate reflection of a time, roughly 1960 to '62, when the Beatles' repertoire was fueled by the adrenaline of youth, not the nostalgia of middle age.

In fact, this is not the band you've known for all these years, though John Lennon (Ian Hart) is clearly the center of the Sturm und Drang. While Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell) and George Harrison (Chris O'Neill) are present, Pete Best (Scot Williams) is the drummer -- and all three are peripheral characters. The Beatles' birthing drama, begun in Liverpool and finalized in Hamburg, Germany, is midwifed by two crucial but little-known figures, Stu Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) and Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee).

Sutcliffe was the Beatles' original bass player, brought into the band by his art school pal Lennon. A totally inept bassist but a gifted painter, the handsome Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage in 1962 and, until now, has been confined to footnotes.

At the film's start, Sutcliffe sells a painting, and Lennon persuades him to buy a bass and join up for the Hamburg trip. Once the Beatles arrive at the notorious Reeperbahn strip, they are forced to get their act together playing long hours before drunk, demanding audiences. All 18 (except for the 17-year-old Harrison), these Beatles are undeveloped musically and emotionally. Enter artist-sophisticate Klaus Voorman (Kai Wiesinger) and his photographer girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr, part of an artsy crowd known as the Exis (for Existentialists).

Voorman is fascinated by the Beatles' raw power, greasy pompadours and Teddy boy roughness, but Kirchherr sees something more and gradually exerts a profound influence. It is Kirchherr who gives Sutcliffe the first mop-top cut and awakens the band's fashion courage. She's the first professional photographer to document the Beatles, and her stark images become the foundation of future mythologies. It is in Kirchherr's library that Lennon first explores the works of philosophy and mysticism that so influenced his thinking. Meanwhile, the introverted Sutcliffe is as consumed by art as the extroverted Lennon is by music, and with Kirchherr's support, he opts for the painter's private, solitary life over the musician's public, collaborative one.

Working with a time period and two crucial characters probably not too familiar to less-than-avid Beatles or rock fans, Softley needs a great performance, and he gets it from Hart, who played a slightly older Lennon in 1991's "The Hours and Times." Though Hart actually looks more like Julian Lennon, he's dead-on John in his unbridled energy and the acerbic snap of his voice.

Dorff, an American, is credible as Sutcliffe, a tortured soul clearly uncomfortable in the limelight, yet strong enough to walk away from it all. Of course, no one could have guessed what "it all" would soon mean, and one of the few mistakes made by Softley (who wrote "Backbeat" with Michael Thomas and Stephen Ward) is crystal-balling what's ahead. This is done in two ways: by injudiciously appropriating tag phrases that don't exist until years later, such as Lennon's complaint that "It's been a hard day's night" and by maudlin premonitions along the lines of "They'll say: 'There goes Stu Sutcliffe. He could have been in the Beatles.' "

The film conveys the raucous energy that fueled the music, which is delivered with lip-sync abandon to tracks recorded by an alternative rock coalition under the guidance of Don Was (who also wrote the evocative orchestral score). Greg Dulli of Afghan Whigs and Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum offer rough-and-tumble versions of Lennon and McCartney vocals, while guitarists Don Fleming of Gumball and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth, drummer Dave Grohl of Nirvana and bassist Mike Mills of R.E.M. avoid retrofitting the raw sound (which is still more polished than the originals).

A roiling Cavern Club finale of "Twist and Shout" becomes a cathartic moment for both the Beatles and their generation, but "Backbeat" suggests that it was what the Beatles saw, heard and experienced in Hamburg that changed them, and popular music, forever. When they came home, Pete Best was going and Stu Sutcliffe was gone. Eight years later, the group's bitter split would be captured in the documentary "Let It Be." Softley's loving tribute could just as well have been titled "Let It Begin."

"Backbeat" is rated R and contains strong language and brief nudity.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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