Backbeat Movie Review
You may have heard of Pete Best, the band's original drummer. He's on the scene here (not Ringo), and so is bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, the so-called "fifth Beatle," the one around whom this telling of the Beatles tale revolves.
More of an aspiring painter than an aspiring rock star, legend has it that Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff, in the best performance of a very uneven career) stuck around as long as he did only because John Lennon (Ian Hart, playing Lennon in a film for the second time here), had a crush on him and urged him to stick with it. Lennon may have also had a thing for Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee), Sutcliffe's German photographer girlfriend and the person who gets the credit for giving the boys the haircuts that earned them so much early attention.
The film does a marvelous job of depicting the divey clubs of Hamburg where the leather-clad Beatles, hyped up on speed given to them by club owners eager to keep them playing all night, power through set after set of superfast R&B. The tracks recorded for the film by punk-leaning musicians have a real edge to them. More foot stompers than toe tappers, they sound youthful, energetic, even somewhat desperate.
As John and Stu carouse, circle around Astrid, and trade cutting barbs while they discuss Stu's future with the band, Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell) and George Harrison (Chris O'Neill) are mere supporting players, serving mainly to complain about Stu's lack of professionalism. It's the interchanges between John and Stu that move the film along. John is ultimately unsuccessful in convincing Stu to keep at it, and Stu stays behind to study art when the Beatles head back to Liverpool in 1961. Stu sticks to his artistic guns, just as John sticks to his, and you wonder what Stu will think about that decision in the years that follow, until you learn that he doesn't live long enough to contemplate it.
It's Stu's extremely untimely death from a cerebral hemorrhage in April 1962 (at the age of 21) that gives the film its heartbreaking coda. Less than a year later, of course, the Beatles, with Best gone and Ringo in tow, are on their way to unimaginable fame, while nothing is left of Stu but a few rooms full of abstract canvases and a portfolio of photographs of him taken by his girlfriend.
Backbeat is a tragedy for sure, but it's a tragedy with one hell of a soundtrack.