Beatles music, abstract art and a luscious Sheryl Lee? Judge Jesse Ataide doesn't think biopics get much better than this.
"He had to choose between his best friend…the woman he loved…and the greatest rock and roll band in the world."
Any self-respecting Beatles fan should recognize the name Stuart Sutcliffe. Though drummer Pete Best is commonly referred to as "the Beatle that never was," Stu Sutcliffe also was a vital member of the Beatles during their earliest stages. Despite lacking essential music skills, his position as John Lennon's best friend seemed to assure him a place in what would become the world's greatest rock and roll band.
The problem was that he wanted something different.
Facts of the Case
John Lennon (Ian Hart, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) and Stuart "Stu" Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff, Cold Creek Manor) share much in common: a lower middle-class childhood in Liverpool, an interest in artistic creation, and, perhaps most importantly, a desire to succeed and have their work recognized by others. After John starts a band, he asks Stu to join despite his lack of musical experience. John, clearly the dominant personality of the pair, convinces Stu to forgo a burgeoning art career and spend the prize money he has received for his artwork to buy a bass guitar. Soon afterwards John and Stu, along with fellow bandmates Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell), George Harrison (Chris O'Neill), and Pete Best (Scot Williams) set off for Hamburg, Germany to gain experience as musicians by playing nights at a sleazy all-night club.
Despite a rough start, the Beatles catch the attention of Klaus Voorman (Kai Wiesinger), who brings his girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee, Twin Peaks) to see the band perform. Klaus, an artist and musician (he would later design the famous Revolver cover for the Beatles, as well as play in several bands), and Astrid, a talented amateur photographer, quickly begin to take an interest in the group, culminating with Astrid photographing the group to aid in their search for a recording contract. (The real-life Kirchherr's photographs have since been recognized as the definitive visual documentation of this stage in the Beatles' career.)
It doesn't take long for romantic feelings to form between Stu and Astrid. Convinced that his true calling is as a painter, Astrid begins to coax Stu to give up music for a career in art. Obviously, this causes tensions within the band, between Astrid and Klaus, and finally between John and Stu, who realize that their respective futures are not what they had planned them for them to be.
Historical films have been around since cinema's inception, and through the years filmmakers have had to come to grips with the risks involved when working historical fact into a fictional framework. When a subject comes from the shadowy past it's much easier to get away with creative revisionism. But taking on the story of the Beatles, a defining cultural phenomenon of the 20th century, doesn't allow for much leeway or for a radical departure from the well-known facts. With three of the original band members and a number of other people depicted in the film still alive at the time of its release, Backbeat had its work cut out for it. How was writer/director Iain Softley (The Wings of the Dove, K-Pax) going to take a fresh approach to the Beatles' story while still staying true to the historical facts?
By taking on Stuart Sutcliffe's story, Softley was able to accomplish two things: flesh out a more obscure angle of the Beatles' story, and move away from making a film solely about the Beatles, which would be a monumental task considering the legions of devoted fans more than willing to pick apart any film depicting their idols. As Softley reveals on one of the interviews provided on the disc, embedded in Stu's story are many themes involving love, friendship, the creative process, and the search for identity—all issues that he wanted to explore in his first film as a director.
In many ways, the focus on Sutcliffe and his subsequent romantic involvement with Astrid Kirchherr is the film's greatest strength, as it allows Softley and his cast to concentrate on telling an interesting story instead of wasting their energies on trying to replicate something as inimitable as the Beatles in their youth. Instead, he attempts to capture the excitement and turbulence of the Beatles' early days as a band, which ends up being a large part of Backbeat's appeal.
As Softley writes (in the essay included in the extras on this disc), in the early 1980s he came across a photograph of Kirchherr's, depicting her and Sutcliffe. As he puts it, with "their French crops, androgynous looks and modern clothes, they exuded sophistication, intelligence, sex and style. It was clear from these photographs that there was more to these people than the footnote in somebody else's story that history had written for them." From there, the idea that became Backbeat was born.
As Softley readily admits, casting in a film of this nature is crucial, and he took several major gambles when he selected Backbeat's acting team. Lead actors Stephen Dorff and Sheryl Lee were both Americans, and were both forced to spend grueling hours perfecting their character's distinct accents. But the gamble paid off, as Dorff brings a mysterious James Dean-like quality to the role that is very appealing, and Lee somehow manages to convey both wide-eyed innocence and a woman-of-the-world aura that makes it easy to see why Sutcliffe would give up his chance at musical immortality to be with her. Mention also should be made of Ian Hart, who plays John Lennon, the band leader and conflicted friend of Sutcliffe. Though he does possess a passing resemblance to Lennon, the ferocity and energy with which he attacks the part is what ultimately allows him to sell his performance as the iconic musician.
With the elements he was able to assemble, Softley would probably have been able to craft a fairly decent Beatles biopic. What takes Backbeat to another level, however, is the exploration of creative expression, and the inevitable definition of identity that comes along with being able to communicate through artistic means. Backbeat presents the story of two artists that share some striking similarities but are essentially different at their most basic level. John Lennon was a musician convinced of his brilliance at a very early stage of his career; Stuart Sutcliffe was a painter who wasn't convinced of his calling as a painter until quite late in his life.
This contrast of personalities and style allows Softley and fellow screenwriters Michael Thomas and Stephen Ward to explore the differences and similarities of the creative process. In some of the most visually interesting sequences of the film, images of Lennon performing on a dark stage in front of a frenzied female audience are quickly cut with Sutcliffe's feverish application of color onto a large canvas in his isolated studio. Softley is able to convey that these two artists, though expressing themselves through vastly different means, are satisfying a common, basic artistic need that both unites them on a spiritual level and separates them physically as friends. The pair, who had expected to achieve worldly and artistic success together, are finally forced to face the reality that they must discover and shape their respective identities as both people and artists if either are going to succeed as artists. This epiphany is played out in an exquisitely rendered scene on a beach late in the film, where some kind of grudging truce is made that finally sets both artists free to pursue their individuals fates.
Focus Features pulls out all the stops for this Collector's Edition disc, which is graced with a beautiful image, a crisp audio track, and a menu bursting with extra features. Some edge-enhancement aside, the 1:85:1 anamorphic image is clean and sharp with no obvious defects. The Dolby Digital 5.1 English track brings the music to startling life, and the Dolby Digital 5.1 French track is very good as well, complete with an excellent dubbing job. Captions for the hearing impaired, as well as French and Spanish subtitles are provided.
The extras are likewise admirable. The commentary with director Iain Softley and star Ian Hart is very helpful in providing motivations for various creative choices made in the film as well as giving some background regarding the actors and other key collaborators that worked on the film. Also provided are several interviews with Softley (one for the Sundance Channel, another with Hart), as well as several deleted scenes, an informative twelve-minute television featurette, casting outtakes, a director's essay, and a photo gallery of the film (though unfortunately several of the photos are rather distorted).
But perhaps the best feature included on this disc is the audio interview with Astrid Kirchherr, illustrated with clips from the film as well her own photography of Sutcliffe and the Beatles. Her comments validate many of the events the film depicts—and demonstrates how well Sheryl Lee was able to capture Kirchherr's distinctive accent. Since Kirchherr rarely gives interviews about her involvement with Sutcliffe and the Beatles, this is a very valuable and informative inclusion on this disc.
While I was visiting Liverpool in late 2004 I was able to spend a morning in "The Beatles Story," an interactive museum the city has created to celebrate their most famous citizens. As I walked through the early sections of the exhibit I was struck at how exciting and downright risky the early stages of the Beatles' career really was. Their lifestyle (full of dank and smoky clubs in several European countries, drugs, personality clashes, and uninterested music executives) was filled with incidents that could have halted the Beatles' famous story before it even got started. My greatest compliment to Backbeat is that in many ways it captured that tension and exhilaration and brought it to life, effectively translating onto film the tremendous risk and heart it took for the Beatles to begin their meteoric rise to fame and fortune. That it was also able to tell a stirring love story, explore the dynamics of friendship, and make a statement about creative expression at the same time makes it that much more of an impressive film.
Essential for all Beatles fans, and interesting enough to hold the attention of the uninitiated, Backbeat is found not guilty and is free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with Director Iain Softley and Star Ian Hart
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