Backbeat (United States, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

"We're gonna be too big for Hamburg. We're gonna be too big for Liverpool. We're gonna be too big for our own bloody good."
- John Lennon, Backbeat

Oliver Stone probably loves this film. Not only is Backbeat a story from "his" era, the early sixties, but it bears more than a passing resemblance to one of his own pictures, The Doors (although it should be noted that Backbeat moves a lot faster). If nothing else, however, Stone usually gets his characters right, but the failure to create a compelling protagonist is this movie's greatest flaw.

Back before anyone had heard of the Beatles, they were a group of five -- John Lennon (Ian Hart), Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell), George Harrison (Chris O'Neill), Pete Best (Scot Williams), and Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) -- playing clubs in Hamburg. Lennon and Sutcliffe were best friends, and every time McCartney tried to oust the less-talented Sutcliffe from the band, Lennon threatened to leave as well. While in Hamburg, the group met Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee), a photographer who became especially fond of Sutcliffe. The love affair between these two threatened the band's stability, and led to one of the most difficult decisions that Sutcliffe ever had to make.

I would have enjoyed Backbeat more if I had begun to feel something for any of the men or women populating this tale. However, since director Iain Softley seems more interested in establishing tone and atmosphere than in creating vital personalities, he is unable to harness the full power of his story. In fact, the script itself is not tightly-focused, although the lack of a strong lead character could in part be responsible for this.

On one hand, Backbeat wants to recount the story of how the Beatles emerged from playing seedy German nightclubs to where they were poised on the brink of stardom. Equally, however, it attempts to chronicle the development of the complex love affair between Stu Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirchherr, and how that romance affected the last years of Stuart's life. While Backbeat does, to some extent, fulfill both of these goals, it does neither to full advantage. When the film works, it's because the two purposes complement each other; when it fails, it's because they are at odds.

Softley uses an almost-documentary style of filmmaking, complete with unusual camera angles and dark settings, to bring home the immediacy of his motion picture. This is successful more often than not, but it could be argued that this method aids in further distancing the characters from the audience.

Music -- rock 'n roll in particular -- saturates Backbeat. It has the most thunderous soundtrack since that of The Commitments, and, if marketed right, will sell tons of CDs and tapes. Nevertheless, all the visual and audio flare, and the tremendous energy that goes with them, can't quite make up for those elements where the film is found lacking.

What makes it even more surprising that the characters have such little magnetism is that, for the most part, the actors portraying them do excellent jobs. Other than having a somewhat variable accent, Stephen Dorff is fine as Stu Sutcliffe, and, excepting a single over-the-top scene, Twin Peaks' Sheryl Lee plays a credible Astrid. Ian Hart gives an amazingly energetic and powerful rendering of John Lennon.

With Backbeat, I recognize the craft used in making the film, I admire the intent, and I like the music. The problem is, the characters don't grab me, and the story meanders too much. Many will doubtless feel differently, especially those with a special interest in the early days of the Fab Four. Regardless of how Backbeat is received, however, certain things about the Beatles are immutable, including their history and their music. It's too bad this film didn't do as good a job capturing the other elements surrounding the group as they did those two aspects.

Backbeat (United States, 1994)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Nudity, Sexual Situations, Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1