Backbeat is not just another Beatles biopic; it’s more of an intimate story of friendship, love and ultimately death. The film’s focus is not on the rise of the group’s fame but, more on the triangular relationship between German photographer Astrid Kirchherr, Stu Sutcliffe, the original fifth Beatle, and John Lennon.
The years were 1960 to 1962. Stu Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) is an art student, a talented painter with sensitive, good looks, a James Dean aura and a rock and roll heart. He also has a best friend by the name of John Lennon (Ian Hart). Lennon’s ragtag band then consisting of Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best were on their way to Germany to perform along the Reeperbahn district. Stu played base and was in the band due to John’s insistence and Stu own loyalty to his friend.
In Germany, they play at a seedy club called the Kaiserkeller in the St Pauli area of Hamburg filled with sailors, tourists, drunks, prostitutes and other sorts. The boys are living in a backroom of a slimy movie theater where between gigs they spend their time shagging willing girls. The music gigs are long endurance affairs. Between their performances of playing loud rock and roll music, strippers perform. It was at the Kaiserkeller, Klaus Voormann (Kai Wiesinger), a young artist, and part of Germany’s young hip bohemian set walks in one night, after a fight with his girlfriend, Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee). Voormann is blown away by the English rockers antics on stage and the music. He soon brings Astrid to the club, and she is enchanted by the music, the group, and especially one of the musicians, the good-looking, sun glass wearing, moody, bass player. Stu Sutcliffe. They invite him into their hip world of Rimbaud, Cocteau, poetry, and art. It was an intellectual zone Stu was more drawn to than the rock and roll world of his band-mates.
Kirchherr was a photographer, who like Voormann was part of the German-Bohemian scene of the day, a group more prone to coffeehouses and jazz music than the tawdry scene along the Reeperbahn. She was captivated by the group, the music, their coarse wildness on stage. Mostly though, it was Stu, the good looking bass player.
She wanted to photograph them, and the group is flattered that a photographer and a good looking woman wanted to take their photographs. She selected an old amusement park as a location. It provided an interesting backdrop and was deserted. No one realized it at the time, but those black and white photographs from that session would become historical documents of the band’s early days.
Astrid Kirchherr’s original photograph of the Beatles (left). Same photo as recreated in the film (right).
A jealous streak develops in John as the love affair between Astrid and Stu heats up shifting Stu away from his friend, the band, and back to the art world. It’s a complicated relationship. John admits at one point, that if not for Stu, he could have fallen for Astrid himself. But he blames her for Stu’s disinterest in continuing with the band. His losing of Stu cause tempers within the group to rise, especially between Lennon and McCartney, the latter who hints that John may have more than a friendly interest in Stu. “Are you saying I’m queer?” Lennon asks. McCartney who knows he can play bass better than Stu can’t figure another reason. Later, Lennon tells Stu, “She thinks I’m queer, Astrid. She thinks I fancy you.” Stu replies that is not what she said, “she said, she thinks we love one another.” That’s the crust of the relationship. It’s not sexual, its attitude, male bonding, Stu is the brother Lennon never had. Stu was in many ways everything Lennon wanted to be but was not at the time. Stu had the James Dean, early Elvis look, and attitude of a rock and roller even if he couldn’t play a lick. Lennon considered himself ugly at the time, and Stu was definitely not.
The music played in those early days were all cover versions of rock and roll hits of the time: Please, Mr. Postman, Long Tall Sally, Twist and Shout among others. The musicians used to recreate the music consisted of Dave Grohl, Don Fleming, Thurston Moore, Greg Dulli and a few others. The musicians wisely did not try to imitate the group but instead infused a sense of feeling, awareness, and excitement. One glaring error that Beatle fans will note is the film shows Lennon singing lead on Long Tall Sally and not Paul McCartney.
With Stu leaving the band, McCartney took over at bass. After The Beatles went back to Liverpool, Stu stayed behind in Hamburg to be with Astrid, and enroll in art school. During this period, Stu began to experience severe headaches, most likely resulting from a bar brawl he and Lennon got into with some drunks earlier on. Sutcliffe died in 1962. Astrid met the returning Beatles at the airport upon their return to Hamburg informing John and the others of Stu’s death just days before their arrival. Soon after, the Beatles would go on to become the most famous group in the world. Stu Sutcliffe never had the chance to fulfill his own dreams.
The screenplay, co-written by director Iain Softley, is based much on multiple interviews he did with Astrid Kirchherr. Ian Hart who plays Lennon captures perfectly the hostile, cynical, caustic wit and rebellious side of the young Liverpudlian. He previously played Lennon in the 1991 film, The Hours and Times. Stephen Dorff, an American actor, plays Stu and does an nice job of passing himself off as a Brit, There is a charisma between him and Sheryl Lee, who play Astrid, that plays out as natural and real.
The other Beatles, basically secondary characters here, were portrayed by Gary Bakewell (Paul, who also played McCartney in the TV movie The Linda McCartney Story), Chris O’Neill (George), Scot Williams (Pete Best) and Paul Duckworth (Ringo).
Softley captured the period and ambiance nicely when the biggest rock and roll band were just another group of friends with hopes and dreams and not much else. The seediness and rawness are all there. The low life crowds, the dirty living conditions and all the sex and drugs a young man could fanthom.
Backbeat is not a perfect film, but it relives a moment in time when the Beatles were beginning to define themselves. It reinforces the influences of Stu Sutcliffe on the group even though he missed the big time. Finally, the film exposes the importance of Astrid Kirchherr’s photography, many nicely recreated, that over the years have become part of the legendary band’s story.