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By John F. Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 22, 1994


Iain Softley
Stephen Dorff;
Sheryl Lee;
Ian Hart;
Kai Wiesinger;
Jennifer Ehl;
Gary Bakewell;
Chris O'Neill;
Scot Williams
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Quick: Who was the non-English female artist who broke up the Beatles? Yoko Ono? Nope. Here's a hint: She was a photographer. Linda Eastman? Wrong again. It was Astrid Kirchherr.

Okay, it's a trick question. Kirchherr, the young Hamburg bohemian who "invented" the moptop haircut and took what have become iconographic photos of the band's early days, didn't break up the Beatles. What she did was fall in love with original bass player Stuart Sutcliffe. It's just as well, since Sutcliffe's defection from the band paved the way for Paul McCartney to handle bass chores. The rest, as they say, is history.

And might have remained history, or at least a bizarre little historical footnote, if not for "Backbeat," a wonderful film that focuses on the Sutcliffe/Kirchherr story but in the process fleshes out the Beatles' early, crazy days.

Director Iain Softley is relatively true to the lore. It's 1960. John Lennon (Ian Hart) and Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) are best friends, struggling artists who have chosen two different media: Sutcliffe, oils, brushes and canvas; and Lennon, a rock 'n' roll band. When Sutcliffe sells a painting, Lennon convinces him to spend the money on a bass, since that's what the guitar-heavy Beatles need.

Recruited to play between strippers in Hamburg's red-light Reeperbahn, the greasy-haired Beatles pump out American rock 'n' roll eight hours a night. Sutcliffe never really learns to play the bass but his brooding James Dean looks make him popular, especially among a circle of artists, including Klaus Voorman (Kai Wiesinger) and his longtime girlfriend Astrid (Cheryl Lee of "Twin Peaks" fame).

Before long Astrid's leaving behind Klaus and Stu is leaving behind John and the two are sneaking off to see French art films, reading Rimbaud to one another and making messy love with tubes of oil paint. Thus the central conflicts of "Backbeat" are revealed: Will Astrid come between John and Stu, will Paul force Stu out of the band and will John stay true to his word to quit the band if Stu leaves? And what about those blinding headaches Stu suffers?

Softley is able to enliven a familiar story and famous characters. His cast helps him. As McCartney, Gary Bakewell has "the cute one's" eyebrows, expressions and seemingly false bonhomie. Chris O'Neill as a 17-year-old George Harrison has a winning naivete and a too-realistic set of bad teeth. As the sulky Pete Best, Scot Williams's best line is "Drummers don't talk." (No wonder they kicked him out of the band. You can't imagine Ringo saying that.)

Most satisfying is Hart, even better here than he was as Lennon in 1992's oddly compelling "The Hours and the Times." He has Lennon's swagger, his intensity and, best of all, his jokiness. Whether arriving in Germany and announcing, "Hamburgee, burgee, burgee," or saying of a Sutcliffe painting, "Hanging's too good for it," or with a single naughty word debunking Hamburg's existentialist poseurs, he is John Lennon.

Through no fault of their own, Dorff and Lee, though they look uncannily like the love-struck artists they portray, seem almost boring and conventional, if only because of the personalities around them.

Smartly, Softley doesn't skimp on the music. We hear entire songs -- "Good Golly Miss Molly," "Money," "Twist and Shout" -- and they're reminders of why the Beatles were so exciting live. (The soundtrack was produced by Don Was with an alternative supergroup that included members of Nirvana, R.E.M., Soul Asylum and Sonic Youth.)

Of course it was right that Stu should leave the Beatles, and of course it was right that John should let him. But what comes through in "Backbeat," along with the amphetamine-fueled adrenalin of Hamburg, is confusion, bruised feelings and the dawning understanding that life isn't just fun and games -- and neither is rock 'n' roll.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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