An Alternative Guide to Great Movies: Backbeat (1994)
- Credit: Archant
Spectacle counts for a lot these days but films that tell a good story with engaging characters can often provide a more rewarding experience. Arts editor Andrew Clarke presents a series of idiosyncratic suggestions for movies which may entertain if you are in the mood for something different.
Backbeat; dir: Iain Softley; starring: Stephen Dorff, Sheryl Lee, Ian Hart, Gary Bakewell, Jennifer Ehle Cert: 15, (1994)
If The Beatles 1967 album Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band represents the finely-tuned pinnacle of pop-rock as high culture then the period covered by Backbeat, Iain Softley’s brilliant character-study, covering their early days in the clubs of Hamburg, is the beating rock’n’roll heart of their musical ambitions.
It tells the story of the origins of the band but also paints a vivid portrait of their members and their conflicting ambitions. For many, the story of The Beatles has always been a story of The Fab Four – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr. But, in Backbeat it’s more Fab Five and Ringo’s not even in the band.
It’s the early 1960s and John Lennon, played with uncanny attention to detail by Ian Hart, is close pals with both Paul McCartney and Stuart Sutcliffe. Backbeat is really the Stuart Sutcliffe story and how he opted to leave The Beatles just as they became famous.
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First time director Iain Softley clearly cares a lot for his subject matter and spends a lot of time establishing a sense of time and place as well establishing the characters of the band members. It’s not enough that we know them from countless jokey interviews or from footage from A Hard Day’s Night, he wants us to meet the real people who made up The Beatles.
We forget that George Harrison was so young. The band was kicked out of Germany during their first visit because George wasn’t yet 18. Pete Best was a cool, good-looking drummer but he hardly said a word to anyone.
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The actors play these rock music icons as people – not as impersonations – and the film really engages us as a result.
While John, Paul, George and Pete’s hearts were in music, Stuart Sutcliffe’s was not. He wasn’t even a good musician. He was in the band as a favour to John and as a way to meet girls. His real passion was art. He was a phenomenal artist and many of his works feature in the film.
But, Stuart Sutcliffe’s passion for art is only part of the story. When the band arrive in Germany and are dazzled by the gaudy lights of The Reeperbahn, Stuart is also quickly dazzled by a young German photographer, Astrid Kirchherr, who is introduced to the band by her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend Klaus Voorman.
Kirchherr is part of Hamburg’s thriving Bohemian art set and Sutcliffe finds both his personal and professional interests moving from the band to Astrid and her world of art, life and parties. Stuart starts missing performances and even an early recording session when The Beatles provided the backing for singer Tony Sheridan who puts out a rock’n’roll version of My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean.
The film neatly contrasts the long, hot, arduous nights playing in Hamburg’s strip clubs with Kirchherr’s privileged world as a young photographer. Stephen Dorff and Sheryl Lee not only look like the two besotted young lovers but they are given time and space by Softley to develop their characters beyond the standard Hollywood romantic leads.
This is what makes the film interesting – particularly with two three-way relationships complicating matters. Firstly, there is the Astrid, Klaus, Stuart triangle which is set against the Stuart, John, The Beatles dynamic.
Gary Bakewell’s suitably grounded Paul McCartney is seen, on several occasions, reminding John, in no uncertain terms, that his friend Stu is not pulling his weight.
Writer-director Iain Softley makes it clear that Astrid Kirchherr is not the woman who broke up an alternative Beatles – in fact she did much to create the foundations of their legend. She provided those first iconic photographs of them, as rock’n’roll bad boys, set against a fair ground and various Hamburg backdrops – brilliantly recreated in a montage sequence – and in the latter days of their stay gave them their famous mop top haircuts.
In the film Stuart knows he’s not a musician and when he’s accepted into a German art school opts to stay in Hamburg when the band return home. He gets engaged to Astrid, sets up home with her but the happiness doesn’t last long before his blinding headaches turn into something more deadly.
No film about The Beatles can skimp on the soundtrack and Softley puts together a brilliant scratch band drawn from members of Nirvana, R.E.M., Soul Asylum and Sonic Youth to give us a sense of The Beatles raw edginess as they discovered who they were and what they wanted to be.
Backbeat is an endlessly fascinating series of portraits – of a man, a couple, a band – and a flawless recreation of a moment in time. As Bakewell’s McCartney counts off 1,2,3 you almost expect to hear the opening chords of Sergeant Pepper, instead you get Chuck Berry’s Rock’n’Roll Music but you can see what’s to come.