When I was growing up there was a British invasion that left an impact far more important to many and much longer lasting than the War of 1812, The British pop music invasion. While the War of 1812 gave us the Star Spangled Banner, the invasion in the early sixties left us with the Beatles. As with any invasion there was a lot going on before the first foot was set upon foreign soil, Backbeat chronicles the early years of the Beatles, long before millions of screaming fans would scream at the slightest glimpse of the fab four, particularly the years 1960 to 1962, these where days when Hamburg was the European center of the bohemian crowd. Young people clad in black, rejected what was considered the social norm and hung out in dark, dank pubs and coffee houses. New to the R&B scene was a little group consisting of George Harrison (Chris O'Neill), Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell), Pete Best (Scot Williams) and John Lennon (Ian Hart). Lennon’s best friend and perhaps the object of a crush is Stu Stutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), predominately a painter but also dabbles in playing bass guitar. Almost constantly in their presence was Stu’s girlfriend, photographer, Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee), also a person that Lennon fancied. Lennon wanted to keep Stu close by having him join the band, to the chagrin of the other members. What made this difficult is Lennon was the real creative force behind the group, without him there really would be no band. This is a time f sex, drugs and rock & roll, the boys show up for a gig obviously high and amphetamines, adding to the natural energy the group naturally possesses. Stu is very reluctant to change from painting to music. He wants little more than to pursue his art and settle down with Astrid. Still, Lennon insists and even in that embryonic form he was a person to be reckoned with. The tension is ultimately resolved with the death of Stu in 1962 of a brain hemorrhage. As such Stutcliffe is relegated to a mere footnote in the greatness that was the Beatles but there is little doubt that his influence was long lasting. Actually, Stutcliffe is credited with the mop hair look that the Beatles made famous.
Naturally, this film is a must for Beatle fans but there is more there for the younger viewers, a fairly compelling story. While the story includes all the original Beatles, Ringo had yet to replace Best, they are in the background leaving the main arc between Lennon and Stutcliffe. The first have of the film sets up the dramatic tension between these two men but the rest of the film does tend to falter a bit. Perhaps that was an accurate representation of the relationship between these two, initially intense and then winding down. Some die hard fans may be a little upset with the latent homosexuality inferred for Lennon. This was a time, especially in Europe, where sexuality was experimental, more fluid that in almost any time before. The photographs taken by Astrid remain the quintessential Beatle view of this pre-fame time. This is a fascinating look at what we usually only see in the first ten minutes of ‘Behind the Band’ shows, how a group begins to integrate the various different personalities and actually mesh as a group. Since Lennon was the creative drive for the men it is fair that the story would center on him. Yet there is a little nagging feeling that there was more to what was transpiring. This is where a little more from the non-Lennon Beatles would have helped, to help flesh out the internal conflicts that where the birth pains of the band.
This is the second film that Ian Hart channels John Lennon, The Hours and Times being the first. Not only does he have an uncanny resemblance to Lennon but he has nailed the mannerism that he was known for. Hart portrays a different Lennon than many of his fans remember. Instead of the somewhat cocky young man out to change the world Hart gives us a Lennon that was treading the fine line between creative genius and someone that is still not sure of his place in the world. His use of drugs to alter or reinforce moods and his somewhat uncertain sexual identity where aspects of the proto-Lennon, the tentative man that would later see himself as ‘Greater than Jesus Christ’. Lennon was the odd man out in the relationship between Sutcliffe and Kirchherr, torn between feelings for both. Stephen Dorff does manage to breathe a little life into Stutcliffe. There is a touch of classical tragedy here, a man pushed by others who dies just as he is beginning to assert his own pathway. The thing is though; none of the cast was able to connect on an emotional level. There is a possibility that this is more the fault of the self obsessed characters that they portrayed.
There is no doubt that director/co-writer Iain Softley has talent. While this was his freshman effort he did go on to direct Wings of a Dove and K-Pax. Softley has a different way of looking at the world, one not bound to convention. The initial pacing is rapid fire, really giving a look and feel for the drug augmented live of a club band. The camera work in the trippy scenes was disconcerting; it looked too much like a little hidden camera, not at all the point of view that was intended. The music is what works in the film. Some of the R&B standards of the time like Long Tall Sally, Good Golly Miss Molly and Twist and Shout are the best part of the film.
The video was a tab on the grainy side but that gave a little documentary feel to the flick. The audio was very good, especially during the various musical numbers. The extras are above the standard faire. There is an interview with the real Astrid Kirchherr giving a look back from the point of view of one the central participant. Instead of a running commentary there is an interview with Director Iain Softley and Actor Ian Hart that talks about the work required to bring this time and these people to life. Add some deleted scenes, a look at casting and a Sundance Interview with Softley and you have something that fans will enjoy. For the MTV set this is a good look at what we considered music. While some will wonder if these events really occurred that is not important, this was the birthplace to the group whose influence still holds strong.