Backbeat: Special Edition

Backbeat

(Universal)

First Appeared in The Music Box, March 2005, Volume 12, #3

Written by John Metzger

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Crafting a movie about the Fab Four is undoubtedly a daunting task, especially considering that director Richard Lester did such an exquisite job of capturing the early days of Beatlemania in his masterpiece A Hard Day’s Night, which placed the group itself in a starring role. Wisely, Iain Softley, who wrote (with help from Michael Thomas and Stephen Ward) and directed the 1994 film Backbeat, opted to focus upon a lesser known chapter of the band’s history. The result is a fascinating glimpse at The Beatles’ formative days in Hamburg, Germany — a time when John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison along with drummer Pete Best and bass player Stu Sutcliffe drank, popped pills, and performed a slew of ragged, edgy R&B covers only to be jeered by an array of miscreants more interested in seeing strippers than hearing music. Nevertheless, the ensemble persevered and developed a following among the existentialist bohemians residing in the area. As the story progresses, however, both the history and the music are pushed into a more atmospheric role, and the film, for better or for worse, begins to focus increasingly upon the relationship between Sutcliffe and Lennon as well as the impact that a chance meeting with photographer Astrid Kirchherr and artist Klaus Voorman had upon them.

Actor Ian Hart expands upon his initial stab at portraying John Lennon in The Hours and Times, and throughout Backbeat he consistently depicts the feisty iconic figure with stunning clarity. Likewise, Stephen Dorff perfectly captures Sutcliffe’s quiet demeanor, and Dorff’s low-key, but no less masterful performance makes all the more believable his character’s decision to depart from The Beatles’ in order to pursue his true loves: life with Kirchherr and painting. Unfortunately, the very storyline that propels the film — the love triangle among Lennon, Sutcliffe, and Kirchherr — is also the one in which Backbeat sometimes becomes mired. Despite a convincing bit of acting by Sheryl Lee, the script only partially develops Kirchherr’s persona, and for such a pivotal role to be handled via a series of fleeting, cliché-riddled snapshots serves to undermine some of the tension necessary for making the movie an unmitigated success. Regardless, Backbeat largely is an entertaining endeavor that follows the trajectory of Sutcliffe’s life from his days as an art student to the turbulent underground music scene of the early ’60s to his tragic death from a brain hemorrhage in April 1962, just a short time before his best pal found the fame and fortune he had been seeking. Through several interviews, including a full-length commentary with director Softley as well as a brief segment with Kirchherr herself, the impetus for the film is further revealed, but it’s Hart and Dorff that truly make the picture worth viewing. starstarstar ½

Backbeat is available from Barnes & Noble.
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Ratings

1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!

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Copyright © 2005 The Music Box