1994, R, 100 min. Directed by Iain Softley. Starring Stephen Dorff, Sheryl Lee, Ian Hart, Gary Bakewell, Chris O'Neill, Scot Williams, Kai Weisinger.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 6, 1994
Drugs and sex and rock & roll: rarely has a film captured the equation as vividly as does Backbeat. That's the movie's greatest strength, not the elucidation of the story of Stuart Sutcliffe, the first Fifth Beatle. In the history of the Beatles, Sutcliffe is merely a footnote, of interest only to serious fans and trivia buffs (and also anyone trying to decipher all the faces on the Sgt. Pepper cover). The movie sets up Sutcliffe (Dorff) as the doomed pop star who never was -- fatefully retiring from the band before any records were even cut, giving it all up for the sake of love, and then dying young in an artist's garret. His most enduring contribution to the band is, reputedly, the mop-top hairdo. (He was the first of the group to adopt the combed-forward haircut popular amongst the Hamburg bohemian crowd where they were working.) Backbeat is essentially the prehistory of the Beatles, covering the years between 1960 and 1962 before Beatlemania seized the world. Centered primarily on their months-long Hamburg gigs, Backbeat depicts the earliest years when the band was just learning to be a band, play their instruments, and work an audience. John Lennon (Hart, who also played Lennon in The Hours and Times) is clearly shown as the driving force behind the band, though the other members -- Paul McCartney (Bakewell), George Harrison (O'Neill), and Pete Best (Williams) -- all seem to share his commitment and enthusiasm. But Lennon also wants his best friend Sutcliffe, a painter, to be in the band and convinces him to buy a bass guitar and learn how to play. The band goes to Hamburg and things are fun for a while -- the beer flows freely and so does the sex, amphetamines jack up the pleasure quotient, the band develops a local following, and they feel at home amongst the Hamburg existentialist-boho crowd. Then Sutcliffe meets a beautiful photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Lee, Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks), and in short time discovers he wants to pursue art rather than music and settle down to married life with Astrid instead of going out on tour. He quits the band and dies of a brain hemorrhage by 1962. As Beatles history, the story is a minor tangent. Furthermore, as a film drama, the story sags once the main tensions are established. Astrid, who took a great many now-classic photos of the early Beatles, has very little to do in the movie aside from being the woman who came between John and Stu. Backbeat makes a strong argument (as did The Hours and Times) for Lennon's latent homoerotic desires. Astrid gets to act muse to Stu, leaving her little to do but hang out, look “arty” and be the one to give Stu that mop-top haircut. The script gives all the characters too much room to pose strikingly while engaged in portentous conversation about the future. Still, Backbeat is so much better than it has any need to be. The key performances are good, though the remaining band members have woeful little to do. The movie succeeds magnificently at capturing the breakneck energy of the period. Like some kind of rock & roll incubator, there emerged during this time a new synthesis of music, art, and popular culture. A few brilliantly edited sequences manage to capture the eclectic flavor. Certainly of help in nailing down the period is the movie's musical score. Music producer Don Was gathered together an all-star band that recorded new tracks that sound outstandingly good. Historically, we might quibble with the overall sound quality and the fact that the Beatles surely never played their instruments quite this efficiently in 1960 but, once again, what the music captures is its overwhelming appeal. Enduring appeal, I might add.