I decided to take another look at Backbeat following my recent work on Control. I was amazed to realise that it’s fourteen years since I saw it last. There are SPOILERS in what follows, so if you don’t know the story and want to watch the film, better stop now.
Backbeat is the story of the ‘fifth Beatle’. There are many claims to the title, but the story of Stu Sutcliffe is the really tragic one. He was the art school friend of John Lennon, a talented painter who played bass in the first true Beatles incarnation, the band that went to Hamburg in the early 1960s when another claimant as fifth Beatle, Pete Best, was on drums. The story is tragic because Sutcliffe, who stayed behind in Hamburg to be with the German girl he met, Astrid (a photographer), then died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage. The possible original cause of this was a blow to the head which the film’s narrative shows as a result of a pub brawl at the start of the film.
Backbeat was written by its director, Ian Softley with help from Michael Thomas and Stephen Ward. Softley was still a small child when the events of the film took place, but I have to say that what he and his colleagues conjure up works on my nostalgia nerve. I was around 12-14 in the early 1960s and I certainly got a whiff of something that makes me think of the period – or at least of a couple of years later when the Beatles hit and I was nervously fingering a pack of 10 Gold Leaf in some seedy coffee bar or dancehall.
Overall, I think the film works, although I think it feels quite slight. My big problem is with Stephen Dorff as Stu Sutcliffe. I’m sure he is a good actor, but I don’t believe he’s a Liverpudlian art student. What makes it worse is that he is opposite Ian Hart on full throttle as Lennon. Hart is completely believable and it’s a stunning performance. Sheryl Lee is also good as Astrid Kerchherr (but not up to Hart in full flow.
The narrative concentrates on Hamburg with a brief introductory sequence in Liverpool and one or two later scenes at the Cavern. This way, we get very little of either Lennon or Sutcliffe’s home life in Liverpool – apart from when Cynthia Powell (who would later become Cynthia Lennon) sees them off by ship. I think a little more of the early life would have helped the credibility.
My second viewing was prompted by Control and the strangely parallel story of the meeting with the more sophisticated girl from Northern Europe. It certainly was the case that ‘continental girls’ seemed somehow sexier and more sophisticated in those repressed times of the early sixties and it was interesting to see that Bardot is mentioned (and seen in poster form) in Backbeat. In my adolescence, I remember Françoise Hardy as the ultimate in teen sophistication.
I think I’m disappointed by Backbeat only because I don’t think it explores the whole question of social class. Lennon and McCartney appear to me as lower middle-class boys who seem slightly more confident in a European milieu than the working class lads of Joy Division and I was rather hoping to see something more about this. I’m grateful to DVD Times for pointing out some of the issues with the film. For instance, I didn’t know that the music which the actors mime to was supervised by Don Was and featured several well-known American musicians of the early 1990s. Suffice to say that they made a good job of sounding right for the period. More to the point perhaps is the comment that the costume for Cynthia Powell (played by Jennifer Ehle) places her as too out of date to keep John Lennon.
If we turn to a genre analysis, I think Backbeat, like Control, steers away from the music biopic. Unless I missed it (it was a late night viewing!) there is no real explanation of how the Beatles end up backing Tony Sheridan for Polydor during their Hamburg stay. As in Control, the focus is on Ian/Stu and his relationships. The intriguing difference is that Stu has to choose between Astrid and John. The film dances daintily around the intense relationship between the two men and attempts to construct the narrative as a tragic romance, whereas Control opts for melodrama. The structure doesn’t work because Stu and Astrid are just not interesting enough next to the explosion that is Lennon and that retrospection urges us to consider the underplayed personalities of Paul and George. I wonder what Pete Best thinks of his representation in the film? I think I need to check out the DVD extras to see what Ian Softley has to say about it.
I’d like someone now to make a film about the ‘beat group’ explosion of the early 1960s – not just in Liverpool, but, I presume, over the whole North of England (and the rest of the country too, but my horizons were a bit limited in 1963-5).