Backbeat

Astrid Kirchherr...Sheryl Lee
Stuart Sutcliffe...Stephen Dorff
John Lennon........Ian Hart

Screenplay by Iain Softley, Michael Thomas, and Stephen Ward Directed by Iain Softley
Produced by Stephen Woolley and Fiona Dwyer

110 Minutes - Polygram Filmed Entertainment Rated R (language, nudity)


The film opens on a traditional forties style girl singer in a club. Two toughs are heckling the woman, and are escorted out less than politely by the girl's boyfriend. We then learn that the two toughs are actually Stuart Sutcliffe and John Lennon, and Stuart has taken a nasty blow to the head.

The story then hits all the highlights one would expect: Stu obtaining the money for a bass from a painting, Stu joining the Beatles, the first trip to Hamburg (the green van is authentically reproduced here :-), Klaus Voorman, and then Astrid Kirchherr coming down to see the boys at the Indra, the burgeoning love affair between Astrid and Stu (complete with a badly off-key "Love Me Tender"), George Harrison's deportation, the dispirited return to Liverpool, the re-return to Hamburg, Stu being accepted by Eduardo Paolozzo. Stu's decision to leave the Beatles behind to become a full-time artist, a poignant death scene for the artistic soul, and Astrid's tearful reporting of the news to John Lennon.

That said, the surprising thing about this film is that it *isn't* a Beatles movie. Even the motto emblazoned across the advertising posters ("5 guys, 4 legends, 3 lovers, 2 friends, 1 band.") wants the viewer to believe that fact. However, that is probably the work of some ad exec, rather than anyone directly involved with the film. The characters of Paul, George, Pete Best, and even Klaus Voorman are minor ones, useful in the story only for how they effect the three main characters (John Lennon, Stu Sutcliffe, and Astrid). Despite that, each of them is given at least one very strong scene. However, I'm sure Paul and George felt a bit sleighted in this portrayal, hence their stated objections.

Ian Hart manages to steal the film from his much better known co-star. Hart was first introduced to Beatles audiences in the short feature "The Hours and the Times" (now available on video). The Lennon here is quite consistent with the Lennon in that feature, but slightly younger, slightly less mature. The best scenes in the film have Hart in them, and an amusing bit with John, Stu, Astrid, and Cynthia together at the beach highlight just how good a handle he has on the real John Lennon. If he were willing to continue his "cottage industry" of playing John Lennon, I would be quite interested in seeing him in a film about John and Paul's relationship, and another about John and Yoko.

Sheryl Lee as Astrid manages to keep up with Hart, but just barely. She plays Astrid as the waif-like photographer to the hilt. A very nice mix raw sexuality with an artistic soul - in many ways, a very Yoko Ono-esque character. Particularly poignant are two scenes where she is seen facing down the strong-willed Lennon. Whether or not the real Astrid was like that is debatable, but it works well within the confines of the film.

Stephen Dorff is good as Stu, but a step down from the two leads. He plays the role as a cross between James Dean and a crazed Pablo Picasso. The character seems the most alive when he's painting, and when he's with Astrid. His friendship with John sometimes gets buried a bit in the background, but is still present enough to make some interesting parallels. For a film that's supposed to be Stu's story, he is a somewhat less interesting character than either Lennon or Astrid.

Perhaps the weakest point in the film is the Lennon / McCartney relationship. About the only time Paul is shown is when he is bitching about Stu ("We're good, but *not* good enough to carry HIM!") but the final decision to leave the band is Sutcliffe's. When the Beatles return to Liverpool (the second time around), McCartney and Sutcliffe are given a strong scene, but the effect of that on John is practically ignored. While the burgeoning friendship is hinted at in the final scenes of the film, it could have been made more explicit here. However, since this is nominally the Stuart Sutcliffe story, this oversight is understandable.

Besides the characters themselves, the music is key to this film. On that front, Don Was has done a marvelous job. His all-star band not only captures the sound of the pre-Fame Beatles, but the feel as well. When combined with the frenzied acting of the stars doing "mach schau," the feeling is completed, and makes me wish I could have seen the Fabs in Hamburg all over again. The soundtrack will definitely be one to buy, and turn up to 11 on your stereo.

The strongest use of the music and clubs was as a counterpoint to the bizarre art world Astrid brings Stu into (which sometimes veers off into a nearly "Twin Peaks" feel, with Lee wandering around strange people, in strange costumes, doing strange things) is very strong. It is quite easy to believe that John Lennon (and hence the Beatles) were strongly influenced by this woman, and her strange friends.

Finally, the producers did a good job sticking to historical accuracy, certainly miles beyond Dick Clark's poorly researched job in "Birth of the Beatles." I only counted a handful of gaffes, some of which were surely done for artistic reasons (the Indra was *not* a strip-club simultaneous to the Beatles appearing there), and some simply to expedite story telling (after George was deported, it took several months for the band to all return to Liverpool). However, none of these detract from an overall splendid film. Look for it when it hits theatres next week, or next month, depending upon where you live.

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