The early, pre-fame days of the Beatles are a great subject for a film, but the potential has been only partly realized in “Backbeat.” This energetic, dramatically potent look at the band’s Hamburg days, with special emphasis on the little-known original fifth Beatle, Stuart Sutcliffe, has quite a bit going for it in the way of cultural and musical history, but lacks a crucial, heightened artistic quality and point of view that would have given it real distinction. Various promotable elements should translate into decent B.O., perhaps more so in the U.K. and Europe and on video than in U.S. theaters.
Spanning the years 1960-62, just before Beatlemania began breaking out in Britain, rock video and docu director Iain Softley’s first feature looks at how the world’s first supergroup got it together musically, personally and image-wise during its wild days and nights in Germany.
More intensely, the screenplay focuses on John Lennon’s relationship with his best friend, Sutcliffe, a young man of James Dean looks but little musical ability who left the group to pursue his muse as a painter and his love affair with Astrid Kirchherr, a young German photographer who had a lot to do with creating the long-haired look that shortly swept the world.
It’s a tumultuous tale, populated by soon-to-be mega-celebrities in the early throes of love, jealousy, the dawning of talent and genius and the discovery of self, all set against a backdrop enormously pregnant with the promise of what came after — namely, all of pop culture from the 1960s to the present. The strong feeling that this is where it all began is inescapable throughout.
Opening reel is set in Liverpool, 1960, where John and Stu are beat up outside a nightclub and then organize their trip to Hamburg to play in a band with Paul McCartney, George Harrison and drummer Pete Best.
Next 45 minutes unspool in Hamburg, where the boys begin their careers in a sleazy bar in the Reeperbahn and, though boarding in a dump, begin to enjoy the attentions of admiring girls.
When artist Klaus Voorman brings his girlfriend, Astrid, to the club, she and Stu immediately connect, and Astrid introduces the Englishmen to her avant-garde existentialist scene, a forerunner of 1960s trends toward drugs, bisexuality and anything-goes cool.
Railing against the pretenses of these self-conscious hipsters, John lashes out at his friend and develops a resentment of Astrid, who shortly throws Klaus over for dreamy Stu.
As the group begins moving up via better gigs and an offer to record, Paul begins insisting that Stu shape up or get out of the group. It’s around this time that they meet Ringo, who’s playing drums with a band down the street. This puts John in the middle, but they’re all kicked out of Germany anyway when it’s discovered George is underage.
When they return to Hamburg, Stu gets in deeper with his art and with Astrid. Finally admitting that Paul is a much better bass player , Stu leaves the band without regrets, although John reproaches him: “They’ll say, ‘There goes Stu Sutcliffe. He could have been in the Beatles.’ ”
Not many people got the chance, however, since Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage in 1962, just as the Beatles were taking off.
All of this certainly holds the interest, but the film’s shortcoming is the lack of a solid point of view on these momentous events.
Two possible solutions come to mind. One would have been to film the material in the black-and-white, rather rough, highly atmospheric style of British films of the early 1960s period, a strategy that worked extremely well in Christopher Munch’s “The Hours and Times,” another early Beatles study concerning John’s relationship with Brian Epstein.
Another evocative possibility would have been to place the action in some sort of poetic relief. The story has mythic reverberations regardless, but creating a resonant context for it through artful stylization would have given it a good deal more weight.
Instead, Softley approaches his material very much straight-on, thereby getting less outof this fabulous subject than one would have hoped. Comparing it with Munch’s gritty, incisive approach merely emphasizes the feeling of a missed opportunity.
For the most part, pic has been well cast. Returning as Lennon after his successful outing in “The Hours and Times,” Ian Hart is again terrifically effective, catching John’s rebellious attitude (his catch-all putdown is “It’s all dick”), and this time including his demanding professionalism and sense of destiny.
Rising American actor Stephen Dorff scores strongly as Sutcliffe, a very cool cat, ladies’ favorite and tortured soul who chooses his own difficult and lonely road rather than opting for easy adulation.
More problematic is Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer of “Twin Peaks”) as Astrid. Lee looks too much like the well-scrubbed Midwestern cheerleader type to be truly convincing as an alluring, off-the-map sophisticated Continental bohemian, which robs the film of some essential mystery and heat at its core.
Gary Bakewell and Chris O’Neill provide good representations of Paul and George, while Scot Williams’ Best remains opaque.
A power group comprised of Greg Dulli, Don Fleming, Dave Grohl, Mike Mills, Thurston Moore and Dave Pirner does almost too good a job covering the rock ‘n’ roll standards the Beatles played in those years, in that it’s hard to believe the band was as accomplished in 1960 as it’s made out to be here. No actual Beatles tunes are used or needed, since they hadn’t been written yet, although it’s not mentioned whether John and Paul began collaborating during this period.
Production values are a bit threadbare, and pic lacks a strong visual style.