Backbeat review by Tom Blain
Great story about a man playing for just another band
Backbeat takes place in Liverpool and Hamburg, in 1960 when the Beatles were small-timing it in bars and clubs around Europe. At the time, the band had five members. Three of them you have probably heard of: John Lennon (Ian Hart), Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewll), and George Harrison (Chris ONeill). Drummer Pete Best (Scot Williams) would later be replaced by Ringo Starr (Paul Duckworth). And then there was the 5th Beatle Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff).
Stuart is the oddball of the band. As Paul remarks, he just stands there, while the rest of the members jump around with endless energy. Its obvious Stuarts heart isnt into the band. He even remarks that he just joined as a favor to his best friend, John. And just as we know in Titanic that the boat will most certainly sink, we know in Backbeat that Stuart will most certainly leave the band. And, of course, the one thing known to separate men is a beautiful woman.
The woman is a German photographer named Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee). In her, Stuart finds what he really desires: art and love. While the rest of the Beatles are out recording their first tracks and writing new songs, he is with Astrid doing lovey-dovey things: exploring Hamburg, reading poetry, taking photographs, and of course making sweet love. Stuart throws away potential fortune, fame, and immortality.
Truth-be-told, these are not your characteristic clean cut Beatles, and thats part of the movies charm. They resemble more of a rough and raucous garage band; picking fights, speaking in vulgar tongues, drinking incessantly, and giving in freely to youthful testosterone. We see a jealous, angry side of a young John Lennon; a man we usually associate with peace and love. Also, instead of using classic Beatles tunes for the soundtrack, director Iain Softley chose to fill the voids with ole blues and jazz tunes, referencing some of the bands early influences and music that might have been found in dank clubs at the time. This is important, because the focus of the film is not to further immortalize the Beatles, but rather to a story of the problems within any small band.
Unfortunately for all of its good, Backbeat contains a few classic flaws of any biopic. For example, statements from characters sometimes foreshadow the bands future success or even the lyrics of one of their unwritten songs (John telling Klaus Voormann he has been working, a hard days night.). Personally I find this to be a tired old scripting trick; a cheap and easy gag that writers should avoid. They should rely more on recognition of the characters traits being translated from reality to the screen than tossing in an obvious reference that will pull a slight smirk out of every other audience member.
Overall, Backbeat is a very satisfying movie. Apart from rather minor foibles, the relationships between characters is more human and less contrived. When I first read about the movie, it seemed to be less about the legend of the Beatles and more about the inter-relationships of any band struggling to make a name for themselves. Thankfully thats exactly what it turned out to be. Any fan of rock and roll should add Backbeat to their collection as soon as possible.
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