Directed By: Iain Softley
Starring: Stephen Dorff, Sheryl Lee, Ian Hart
Tag line: "5 guys, 4 legends, 3 lovers, 2 friends, 1 band"
Trivia: According to director Iain Softley, he knew that Stephen Dorff and Sheryl Lee would be perfect for their roles as soon as he met them
In the early days of the 1960s, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, otherwise known as The Beatles, were honing their craft in the dingy bars and small venues of Hamburg, Germany. The group was a little different back then. For starters, the drummer was Pete Best, who would eventually be replaced by Ringo Starr. Also, the band had a 5th member: Stu Sutcliffe, a good friend of John Lennon’s, playing bass guitar. By his own admission, Stu wasn’t much of a bass player, but he was one hell of an artist, and even today his paintings and sketches are admired by collectors and enthusiasts the world over.
Directed by Ian Softley, 1994’s Backbeat puts the focus squarely on Stu Sutcliffe and the love affair that developed between him and German photographer Astrid Kirchherr. But even with Stu and Astrid front and center, it’s the Beatles themselves who end up stealing the show.
After selling one of his paintings, Stu Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), accompanied by his best pal John Lennon (Ian Hart), walks into a Liverpool music shop and buys a bass guitar. He intends to accompany John and the other members of his rock group, namely Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell), George Harrison (Chris O’Neill), and Pete Best (Scot Williams), to Hamburg, Germany, where they’ll be the house band for a back alley strip club. For Stu, playing rock and roll in a foreign country is a bit of fun, but for John, it’s deadly serious; he believes the group, which adopts the name “The Beatles”, is destined for greatness, and he’s determined to do whatever it takes to make his way to the top. Though they like Stu, Paul and the others aren’t impressed with his musical abilities, and feel he’s dragging the band down, but John says, in no uncertain terms, that if Stu is forced out, he’ll quit as well.
It’s around this time that the group is introduced to Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee), who stops by the club one evening with her boyfriend Klaus (Kai Kiesinger). From the moment their eyes meet, sparks fly between Stu and Astrid, and the two become inseparable. This causes some friction between Stu and John, who wants his friend to take the music more seriously. But Stu had other plans, and, with Astrid by his side, he enrolls in a prestigious Hamburg art school. Unfortunately, fate, in the form of a previous injury, would rear its ugly head, resulting in a tragedy that none of them saw coming.
Along with its high-energy musical numbers, which feature covers of such early rock classics as Long Tall Sally, Please Mr. Postman and Twist & Shout, Backbeat has a hell of a cast. Dorff is extremely likable as Stu, the laid-back rocker who gives it all up for love, while Sheryl Lee is both restrained and incredibly effective as the spiritually-minded Astrid (the chemistry between the two is remarkable, and makes their character’s love affair all the more poignant as a result).
Even more impressive than the leads, though, are the actors who portray the Beatles, starting with Ian Hart, who captures the intensity, the complexity, and even the humor of John Lennon (his intros to the band’s live performances are often quite funny). Physically, Gary Bakewell is a dead ringer for Paul McCartney, and delivers a turn that has us believing we’re actually watching the legendary rocker in his teen years, while Chris O’Neill is appropriately naive as the underage Harrison (when German authorities discovered he was only 17, they kicked George and the rest of the band out of the country). Even Scot Williams, as the oft-forgotten Pete Best, has a few memorable moments.
At its heart, Backbeat is about Stu and Astrid, and the majority of the film’s screen time is dedicated to their story. But as this movie ultimately proves, nobody can upstage the Beatles.