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Backbeat focuses on Lennon, Sutcliffe interaction


Directed by Iain Softley.

Written by Iain Softley, Michael Thomas, and Stephen Ward.

Starring Stephen Dorff, Ian Hart, and Sheryl Lee.

Loews Harvard Square.

By Scott Deskin
Associate Arts Editor

Take a look at the Beatles, a group whose mammoth legend is only equalled by the quality of its music. In their eight years of recording, they produced (and shaped) the music that would define much of the 1960s, just as it continues to influence musicians and listeners today. Yet most Beatles fans are influenced by just one aspect of the group's history (Beatlemania, Sgt. Pepper, Abbey Road medleys) or the cookie-cutter caricatures of the band members themselves (Lennon's pessimism, McCartney's idealism, Harrison's mysticism, and Starr's clownish charm). Too often the group's early history is overlooked; first-time director Iain Softley chooses to offer a different perspective in the film Backbeat.

The year is 1960, and the band from Liverpool is struggling for recognition in the dark, sleazy, smoke-filled clubs of Hamburg. John Lennon (Ian Hart), Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell), and George Harrison (Chris O'Neill) all play guitar, with pre-Ringo drummer Pete Best (Scot Williams) and bassist Stu Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) comprising the rhythm section. But, as McCartney's character so often makes clear, Sutcliffe's sub-par basslines aren't giving the band much support. Lennon and Sutcliffe (whose presence lent the band a cool, James Dean-like persona) are friends who met in art school, and their friendship is made evident by John's reluctance to cut Stu from the band.

The film doesn't chronicle the Beatles' early history so much as it focuses on the friendship between Lennon and Sutcliffe. From the beginning, their link from the past is significant, and their willingness to stick together is shown in the opening sequence, when both men get beaten up and narrowly escape intact from a bar brawl. In a way, Lennon feels sorry for Sutcliffe as a starving artist and pitches the band opportunity as his way to give him a shot at success. However, Stu doesn't seem to fit onstage like the others: amidst a storm of thundering guitar, caterwauling vocals, and thrashing performers, Stu stands nearly immobile on bass, wearing shades and occasionally missing a beat. He doesn't get back in line with his true calling (art), until a nightclub encounter with German avant-garde photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee).

The romance between Sutcliffe and Kirchherr may be the weakest part of the movie; whenever it tries to explore a serious moment between the two of them, it succeeds in creating a diversion from the main thrust of the story (rock 'n' roll) into something less enjoyable (a heavy and somewhat pretentious love triangle between Lennon, Sutcliffe, and Kirchherr). It also feels like the story is trying to create a myth out of "fifth Beatle" Sutcliffe, in that buying into the mythology surrounding John Lennon, the audience gets two tortured artists for the price of one. But, whereas Lennon got to face his demons later on, Stu Sutcliffe's artwork reflects a tumultuous vision-ideas borne of a mind that would succumb to a brain hemorrhage at the age of 21.

When Backbeat concentrates on the band itself, the reconstructed history of the Beatles is often fascinating. The covetous position of Paul McCartney to play bass may be a point of mild controversy, as is the argument between Lennon and McCartney that erupts into a perceived allegation of a homosexual relationship between Lennon and Sutcliffe. But the story also alludes to the band members' first experiences with drugs and the diminishing role of drummer Pete Best within the group. Behind all this storytelling, of course, is the music, and while copyright restrictions forbade use of the early Lennon-McCartney songs in the soundtrack, the audience does get to hear flaming interpretations of many classic rock and R&B covers. Indeed, the new versions of "Money," "Long Tall Sally," and even "Twist and Shout" sound as fresh now as they did 30 years ago.

The acting in the film is better than average. Relative newcomer Stephen Dorff cuts a striking, impassioned image as the artist Sutcliffe, while Sheryl Lee (the Laura Palmer character of Twin Peaks fame) does her best with Sutcliffe's existentialist lover, Astrid Kirchherr. Admittedly, the doomed lovers are overshadowed by the context of the story, and especially by Ian Hart, who plays John Lennon. Even if Hart doesn't capture the complete essence of Lennon, the physical resemblance is pretty amazing, and his witty, sometimes ascerbic comments keep the story afloat. Since the movie focuses on those three characters, the rest of the cast fades into the background as supporting players: diehard Beatles fans may be disappointed by the lack of characterization among the other band members. Also, the soundtrack and Liverpool accents may make the dialogue a little muddy and hard to pick up.

However, if Backbeat is not a triumph, it at least succeeds in presenting an alternate history for the Beatles, and it may even convert a few non-Beatles fans. When it works, Backbeat gives viewers a unique dose of history and nostalgia to keep them interested. The music's a nostalgic revelation in itself.