The band has a gig at the upmarket Cavern Club but John Lennon isn’t happy. “It’s all gold lame and synchronized moves,” he complains. To the show’s immense credit, that’s the last description anyone will use about “Backbeat.” Yes it’s a bio-musical about the formation of the Beatles, but a brain-dead jukebox it most certainly is not. David Leveaux’s impressively dark-toned revamp of Iain Softley’s stage version of his 1994 movie replaces glitz with guts, which may be a hard sell, but its compelling performances deserve to turn it into a serious hit.
Fans are always divided over who was their favorite of the so-called Fab Four: Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison or Ringo Starr. But “Backbeat” barely features Ringo (he appears right at the end) and focuses instead on the love triangle among Lennon, Astrid Kirchherr and Stuart Sutcliffe. For anyone scratching their heads over the dramatis personae, Kirchherr (Ruta Gedmintas) was the German photographer who influenced the band’s look and Sutcliffe (Nick Blood) was the barely remembered original bassist who died of a brain hemorrhage at age 21.
Instead of shamelessly shoehorning the entire back catalog into a thin biographical sketch, “Backbeat” examines the pivotal relationships in the early days, ending at the recording session for the first album. With only two exceptions, the musically vital performances are ’50s R&B and rock ‘n’ roll covers the band played, not their own songs, which changed the sound and image of ’60s music.
Furthermore, helmer Leveaux’s increasingly absorbing production feels less like a tuner, more like a play with extremely well-performed songs.
Much of the success derives from Softley and Stephen Jeffreys’ book, which has been strengthened and tightened since the production’s first outing at Glasgow’s Citizens theater in 2010. Instead of earning applause for separate, distinct numbers, the production intercuts performances into and out of sharply etched action.
Numbers are not engineered to shed light on individual moments as in standard bio-musicals. They’re impressively thrashed out, almost randomly, by the band whose members are slogging their way through an extended series of gigs in a Hamburg venue closer to a brothel than a decent club.
Their rise is shown through the prism of Sutcliffe who, under bullying by his best friend Lennon, has abandoned his promising career as an abstract artist to join the unnamed band. Sutcliffe’s private tussle between his discarded dream of life as a solitary artist and the all-too-real possibility of group success is kept central to the drama, and things reach a head when Sutcliffe realizes he’s falling in love with Kirchherr.
Neither the art-vs.-commerce equation nor the love-interest-vs.-best-friend scenario is exactly new, but the intensity of all three performances proves wholly convincing, not least that of utterly driven Andrew Knott, who refuses to earn sympathy for Lennon, coming across as forever furious. His sour command of every situation eclipses the input of all the other band members, even McCartney (eerily well sung by Daniel Healy).
There’s a pale intensity to willowy Gedmintas’ performance as Kirchherr. She’s helped by the sophisticated use of video projection to show her passion for both photography and Sutcliffe. A lesser production would have overdosed on her now famous stills. But here, black-and-white video footage is used to establish a tone that is completely in keeping with Christopher Oram’s stark, impressively fluid design. His largely monochrome palette conjure the era and the mood of increasingly tragic desperation.
Best of all is thoughtful Blood as troubled Sutcliffe. Sporting dark glasses whenever possible, he undercuts the king-of-cool image with suggestions rather than overt expressions of unease that latterly move toward self-torture.
Despite that, “Backbeat” cunningly manages not to be a gloomfest, as evidenced by the big rock ‘n’ roll finish. Not everything works: The ache governing the relationships is ultimately unbalanced and the climatic pain that Lennon finally feels lacks impact. But the punchy portrayal of musicianship is undeniably exciting. Scenes in which artists show the creative process are usually toe-curling, but the amusing scene in which Lennon and McCartney rewrite “Love Me Do” has such terrific detail that it feels unusually convincing — like the rest of the show.