At first glimpse, Iain Softley's Backbeat looks like a gritty trifle aimed at nostalgic Beatles buffs. It dusts off the old story of Stu Sutcliffe, John Lennon's best friend in Liverpool, who played bass with the group from 1959 to 1961. A halfhearted musician, Sutcliffe found his head turned by an intriguing German photographer named Astrid Kirchherr during the Beatles' so-called "Hamburg Period," and quit in favor of devoting himself to her, mooning over Rimbaud and painting.
"Truth is, I'm not a bass player," Stu (Stephen Dorff) says modestly. "I just came along for a laugh." Still, a John-Astrid-Stu love triangle apparently produced tempests and intrigues aplenty in Hamburg.
By itself, such material would have made it easy enough to romanticize the "lost Beatle." But Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage in April 1962, just as John, Paul, George and Ringo were about to burst on the world scene, and that provides an even more powerful layer of mythology. The film sees him as a 21-year-old martyr to Art with a capital A, and the implication is inescapable that his death presaged Lennon's murder eighteen years later.
To be sure, Backbeat is just the ticket for rock anthropologists hooked up to the Walkman eight days a week. But even those uninterested in Sixties nostalgia in general, and each new ripple of Beatles minutiae in particular, may find themselves captivated. The film shows us not only the Beatles in the process of becoming the Beatles, but a new social ethic in the making. If, in The Doors, Oliver Stone seemed to burst in with cameras blazing on the full-blown energy and hazy self-destructiveness of the Sixties counterculture, Softley has a greater opportunity: He dramatizes how the World War II generation was about to be swept away by the urgencies of pop/rock and new definitions of "art" in a new time.
The pre-Ringo Beatles we meet here--five of them, including Sutcliffe and drummer Pete Best--are not what the press would later call "mop-topped," nor are they the nimble wits we would later know. In 1960 they are raw, untraveled, working-class boys from Liverpool spewing tenement slang and getting seasick on the trip over. There's not much originality yet. Instead, they gyrate in their ducktails, reverently covering their heroes' old standards--"Good Golly Miss Molly," "Long Tall Sally," "Twist and Shout." As everyone knows, the Beatles weren't very good at first, and the band assembled for the movie--Greg Dulli, Don Fleming, Dave Grohl, Mike Mills, Thurston Moore and Dave Pirner--wisely makes no effort to revise musical history. There's also not a single Lennon-McCartney tune on the track.
What the early, rough-hewn Beatles do project here, particularly in the surly ambition of the young John Lennon (Ian Hart) and the defiant edge of their playing before drunken audiences in the seedy strip joints of the Reeperbahn, is the antisocial origins of punk and grunge and, more than that, the attitude of rock musicians who knew (or suspected) they were creating something beyond teen trash. Art is not something you hang on museum walls, Lennon scoffs. He's just run into Van Gogh on the streets, he tells Sutcliffe, and Van Gogh no longer wants to be a painter--he wants to play "Blue Suede Shoes."
The notion of three-chords-as-high-culture certainly is no universal truth in the fraud-infested world of rock and roll. But it's hard to argue against the durability of the Beatles, and former rock videoist Softley, directing his first feature, ably transmits both the manic intensity of their early music and the influences that created it. For instance, when the cool, bohemian photographer Astrid (Sheryl Lee, best known as the mysterious murder victim Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks) introduces the young Liverpudlians to the sophisticated posers of Hamburg's avant-garde scene, Lennon is intimidated and lashes out, particularly against all the incipient androgyny; Sutcliffe is snowed and wants to join up. But both boys are deeply affected: In a time when crucial decisions loom for them, they begin to see that art and life are not separate worlds, that many old distinctions are melting away.
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As the movie has it, Astrid is an important catalyst for Lennon and Sutcliffe. Her love for Stu redirects him back into painting. Her dignified photos of the band, it is said, set the Beatles' visual style, and she is sometimes credited with creating their haircuts, if not shaping their attitude. Softley may overstate Astrid's influence in the service of his movie's dynamics, but it's fascinating, and there are some hilarious moments--John Lennon having some kind of blue drink shoved into his hand in a cool Hamburg jazz club, the impetuous Stu beating up Astrid's ex-boyfriend, Klaus, after finding them holding hands while the Berlin Wall goes up on television.
Meanwhile, Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell) and George Harrison (Chris O'Neill) may as well not exist here: Backbeat focuses almost exclusively on the seething young Lennon, the best friend who seems to betray him and the German girl they're both drawn to. Of course, Lennon also loves Stu in his way, almost as much as he loves the idea of conquering the world and reshaping the boundaries of music. "I'm not angry, sister," he spits at Astrid. "I'm desperate."
Not for long, of course. That's why the moment captured here--a bridge between eras, when things still could have gone either way for the Beatles and for an entire culture--seems so pivotal. And why Stuart Sutcliffe's death at 21 takes on a greater weight than the ancient cliche of fame-by-association might otherwise bring to it.
That's what makes Backbeat something more than a good backstage biopic or another piece of Beatles memorabilia. Its sense of timing is perfect: It knows when to come in and when to lay out.