Thirty years after The Beatles first graced the big screen they returned, albeit in fictional form, in “Backbeat.” The film chronicles the tragic story of Stu Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), The Beatles’ fifth member during the band’s formative years in Hamburg. Sutcliffe left the band to pursue his real passion of painting only to die from a brain hemorrhage just as The Beatles were about to explode.
Roger Ebert wrote in his review of Backbeat that “the exhilaration of the young Beatles has already been captured in one of the best musicals ever made, 'A Hard Day’s Night' and this movie never convinces us Stuart Sutcliffe could have held his own in the band.” But that’s not the film’s intent.
Sutcliffe wasn’t a musician. He joined the group because his friend John Lennon (Ian Hart) asked him to. He went to Hamburg for a laugh and out of loyalty to his best mate. Ebert, like many other critics, complained that Sutcliffe’s life and death is far less interesting than The Beatles story and that the only reason we are hearing his story is because of his peripheral presence in the band. Both statements are true, but don’t necessarily mean Backbeat is an unworthy film.
The Beatles are the reason the film exists and also, in many respects, what undermines its central story. There is genuineness between the friendship of Stu and John as portrayed by Dorff and Hart, who have the chemistry of lifelong mates. There is a sense of betrayal when Stu falls in love with German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee). Astrid took the definitive photos of the band from this era and helped define the image that would make them stars a couple years later.
Dorff and Lee have a sweet chemistry that is completely different than that of Dorff and Hart’s and makes for an interesting counterpoint. A subtle love triangle develops, but not in a typical Hollywood fashion. It is the sort of triangle that you find in life, quietly there and deeply painful. Astrid is stuck between two men who care about each other deeply, but are heading down separate paths. Hart smolders with anger, desire and ambition to be something great. While Dorff’s Stu is content to just work on his art and be in love.
If Backbeat’s story was about fictional characters it would intrigue, but since it features characters that would go on to be debatably the most influential pop group of the 20th century, there is a sense that there should be more to the film. The film focuses so directly on Stu, Astrid and John that Paul (Gary Bakewell), George (Chris O'Neill) and original drummer Pete Best are barely present. Director and co-writer Iain Softley even debated changing the band and character names to avoid the film being overwhelmed by The Beatles unavoidable mystique. That the band is indeed The Beatles isn’t mentioned until near the film’s end.
While "Backbeat" doesn’t focus specifically on The Beatles it does capture their essence. Ebert was right in saying “A Hard Day’s Night” is the definite time capsule of The Beatles youthful energy and humor. But “Backbeat” does capture some of that humor in dialogue, for instance: “I had a word with Van Gogh last night. He said, ‘If he could do it all again he'd be down here shaking his bottom to 'Blue Suede Shoes.’ I gave him your regards.” Yet the film wisely doesn’t live and breathe on the loony-dialogue showcased in Richard Lester’s films. Instead the dialogue has a realness to it. The goofy camaraderie is balanced with desperation and yearning, whether it is for fame or love, that feels truthful.
This being a film featuring The Beatles, the music is, naturally, great. Softley chose not to use the actually Beatles, most likely out of necessity since recordings from the time period are unavailable or are bootlegs at best. In its place, Softley compiled a super group of post-punkers and grunge artists that included Nirvana’s Dave Grohl, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner and Afghan Wings’ Greg Dulli. It is a dynamite recreation of the music The Beatles were playing at the time, primarily covers of their favorite American 50s rock. It doesn’t quite sound like The Beatles, but it does capture the raw, infectious energy of the band. In addition to the music being spot on, so are the period details. The hair, costumes and atmosphere feel right. It is clear Softley and his crew took great care to have everything look and sound right and the attention to detail pays off.
The film has its flaws. It is implied that Sutcliffe’s death was due to a combination of a blow to the head in a bar fight and the use of speed, but neither rings true. Although we are shown Sutcliffe having one devastating headache and a drastic mood swing, his death occurs too abruptly. In actuality his death was a slow and painful one that left him bed ridden with agonizing migraines. Softley’s decision to cut that away for the sake of running time is reasonable, but Sutcliffe’s death feels almost like an afterthought. The film also has an annoying habit of cheekily dropping Beatles song titles into conversations. It is too knowing and cute for a movie that is otherwise above such gimmicks.