I adore this movie. Partly for the simple reason that I believe it is a thoughtful and well crafted meditation on love, destiny, and growth; partly because every viewing experience is coloured by what I know is going to happen, both in the film’s immediate story and in the larger picture of music history; and partly owing to the fact that the story is personal to me in a powerfully emotional way.
Backbeat is essentially the story of a love triangle that is played out, for the most part, in the German city of Hamburg in 1960-62. The triangle involves John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe, and Astrid Kirchherr. Lennon, of course, requires no introduction. Stuart Sutcliffe was a close boyhood friend of Lennon who was a prodigiously talented painter. Lennon convinced Sutcliffe, who was less than prodigiously talented as a musician, to play bass in the rock and roll band he was forming with Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best. In 1960 when the band is hired to play at the Kaiserkeller Club on the Reeperbahn, a raunchy district of nightclubs and brothels in Hamburg, Stu tags along as bass player. Stu’s lack of musical ability and stage presence creates tension in the band, especially between John and Paul McCartney.
When German photographer Astrid Kirchherr shows up at the club one night with her boyfriend Klaus, Stu is instantly attracted to her, and she to him. The pair soon becomes inseparable and Klaus is nudged aside. What follows is a complex and fascinating story of jealousy, self-discovery, love, and tragic loss, skilfully and beautifully choreographed by novice director Iain Softley. A big part of the story is, of course, the increasingly compelling musical personality of the Beatles as the group moves up in the hierarchy of clubs in the Reeperbahn, makes its now-famous appearance at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, and becomes the mop-headed rock and roll band that would soon astonish the world. That we know what lies in the very near future for these boys fuels a sense of excitement that percolates throughout the film.
The story of John-Stuart-Astrid is less well known but no less compelling. From the beginning it is quite clear that John loves Stu and that the band is carrying their bass man as a dead weight as a result. Even Stu is aware that he is not good enough to be a Beatle. He is a painter—an artist of exceptional skill and creativity—not a musician; the gig with the Beatles is a lark and a chance to be with John. When Astrid, a mature and committed artist herself, comes along, Sutcliffe accepts the implicit call to grow out of his adolescent connection with John and become a full-fledged artist. John is wounded by Stu’s betrayal and angry with Astrid for stealing away the only person he really loves. But, passionately driven by hunger for his own destiny, he has no choice but to let his friend go. Stuart blossoms as a painter, but his story ends very differently from that of John and the Beatles.
So the things I love about this movie. First, the music. When I saw this movie the year it came out, I was most impressed with the great rock-and-roll energy and passion of this group. At the time (and in fact until I watched an interview with Iain Softley on the DVD I just bought) I believed that the actors were really singing and playing all those great songs. And I loved the songs—Twist and Shout, Money, Please Mr. Postman—that I remembered so well from the early Beatles years when I was a lonely young teenager in love with them and their music (not to mention the Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits…).
The second thing I love is the film’s authenticity, which it achieves without crossing over to slavish and lifeless imitation. The clothes, the cars, the hair, the grubby clubs and their tough patrons, Astrid’s camera and her photographs. I never doubted for a moment that I was experiencing Liverpool or Hamburg in the early sixties or eavesdropping on the cramped and hygienically dubious sleeping quarters at the back of the club endured by the young pop singers, or visiting the fascinating nightspots frequented by young German artists and intellectuals where everyone dressed and acted as creatively and outlandishly as they cared to.
Finally, the three leads, not one of whom I had ever heard of or have ever seen in a film since, bring this complex set of passions—for their art and for each other— magically to life. Stephen Dorff, who plays Sutcliffe, was a young American actor; he not only nails the Liverpool accent, he convinces us completely that he is an extraordinary painter, a passionate lover, and a young man in unbearable pain. Sheryl Lee, as Astrid, is cool and hot at the same time; she is at once sophisticated and vulnerable, gentle and cruel, artist and intellectual. Ian Hart gives us a wounded, driven, brilliant John Lennon.
Backbeat is a fine piece of filmmaking, one that deserves more attention than it has received. It is a film that should appeal not just to Beatles fans—because there is much more to this movie than a slice of Fab Four history—but to all lovers of damn good cinema.
Backbeat poster @ Wikipedia
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