Film - Backbeat


steven harris watches a film about the Beatles that's not really about the Beatles ...

You may know the work of Iain Softley. He’s the guy who directed ‘Hackers’ and the generally underrated ‘K-Pax’. And he co-wrote and directed ‘Backbeat’, an iconic 1994 movie about an even more iconic bromance: the love between John Winston Lennon and his best mate Stuart Fergusson Victor Sutcliffe.

Stuart was the bass-player only drafted into The Beatles because he was John’s pal. His first love was art. His second love was Astrid Kirchherr whom he met during the band’s first engagement at a seedy club on the Reeperbahn, at that time definitely the seediest part of Hamburg in Germany.

Softley ostensibly pitches ‘Backbeat’ as a tale of how Stu met Astrid, fell in love and left a group which would go on to become the most successful band in the history of popular music. It sort of is but it’s really the tale of how two young Scousers loved one another like brothers but had to follow their own separate paths in life - Stu had to leave the band to pursue art once more; John had to look beyond his friendship with Stu to see that with Paul McCartney on bass the band were actually a far better unit more likely to fulfil his ambitions of rock and roll stardom.

Sutcliffe’s departure from the band not only ensured he could stay in Hamburg with Astrid, it also meant that when he died tragically young in April 1962 he did at least leave behind a legacy of brilliant and often entirely unique works of art.

For my money Stephen Dorff has never bettered his performance as Sutcliffe, losing all trace of his Southern American drawl to slur words into one another like a genuine Liverpudlian (unless you happen to actually be from Liverpool in which case he probably sounds like some Yank twat pretending to be from Huyton).

Ian Hart’s Lennon is astonishingly accurate. all the right elements are there: swagger, desperation, anger, musical obsession and a fiercely disguised intellect equal to that of any of Astrid’s existentialist friends, had he but possessed the self-awareness at the time to recognise this fact.

Hart had already played Lennon onscreen in the Sundance-winning 1991 short feature ‘The Hours And The Times’. Written and directed by Christopher Münch, it focuses on a slightly older, famous Lennon and imagines what might have taken place between Lennon and the band’s manager Brian Epstein on a brief holiday the pair took to Barcelona in 1963. That holiday was real, the undertones of a gay relationship between Epstein and Lennon plausible but unlikely. Evidently Hart himself was plausible enough as John for Softly to turn to him again when casting ‘Backbeat’.

There are other recognisable names on the cast list too. Lennon’s girlfriend and later wife, Cynthia Powell (who sadly passed away very recently, hence my urge to revisit this movie in the first place) is played by Jennifer Ehle who is frequently under-used in ensemble cast productions such as ‘Sunshine’ or ‘The King’s Speech’.

Astrid is played by none other than Sheryl Lee. You know her better as Maddy Ferguson AND as plot lynchpin Laura Palmer (Maddy’s cousin) in ‘Twin Peaks’. Sorry, did I say plot and lynch? My humble apologies Mr Lynch, as if you’d ever have wanted to sully ‘Twin Peaks’ with anything so formulaic as plot. Oh but you can do narrative, can’t you, David? Maybe that’s why you’ve bailed on the return of ‘Twin Peaks’? Maybe the studios demanded resolution this time around? Philistines. Wankers.

‘Backbeat’ takes some liberties with historical fact. Stuart Sutcliffe did not die on the floor of his studio in Hamburg as is suggested by Astrid grabbing his lifeless body in her arms and howling with sorrow. He died in the ambulance on the way to hospital (as echoed eighteen years later by Lennon himself who died not outside the Dakota Building in New York, as many believe, but in the ambulance en route for hospital). An aneurysm is generally the cause of death attributed when it comes to Stu, quite possibly related to a swelling in the brain which may or may not have been caused by a series of kicks and blows to the head back in Liverpool a few years earlier.

‘Backbeat’ opens with that series of kicks and blows but again takes liberties with the most repeated version of events. According to most anecdotes John and Stu were not watching a singer in some club when their insouciant manner annoyed a bunch of dockers and sailors who set upon them. According to most anecdotes Stu was already in the band (he joins a few scenes later in the film) and a gig in Litherland, Sefton (that’s on Merseyside you know) turned into a free-for-all brawl in which Stuart and possibly Lennon got kicked to crap on the dance floor.

No matter. In general the feel and the overall facts are well enough in place to allow the triumvirate of Stu, Astrid and Lennon to drive the narrative. I only care about these details because they matter. Fuck wars and tanks and battles and generals, if you don’t know the story of The Beatles then how can you claim to know anything about history? Cultural history anyway. And if I ever DO want to know about wars and tanks and battles and generals I’ll ask my son who is an extremely intelligent fellow in that respect.

The guy playing McCartney is a dead ringer for Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong which seems almost symmetrically preordained in a way as the ‘live’ music performed by The Beatles (all rock and roll covers. no Lennon/McCartney originals through the movie, no doubt because of copyright issues) is produced by some of Green Day’s cooler, grungier predecessors. Vocals are handled by Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum and by Greg Dulli, singer of The Afghan Whigs. Don Fleming of Gumball is one of the guitarists. And then the cool factor notches up with Mike Mills from R.E.M on bass (oh ok, by 94 they weren’t as cool as they had been but they’re from Atlanta, Georgia, just like Dorff). You want better than that? Shall I just casually mentioned that Thurston Moore is another of the guitar players and that Dave Grohl does the drumming. Dave fucking Grohl, man. Nirvana were still together at the time because Kurt wasn’t all dead. And if you’re still not impressed how about Black Flag’s Henry Rollins voicing Stuart Sutcliffe singing ‘Love Me Tender’, badly?

I feel stupid for now having lower the tone once more and acknowledge that the chap playing Klaus Voorman looks almost exactly like Herr Lipp from ‘The League of Gentlemen’. Still, Klaus himself kept you all in his German fist by going on to become bass-player in Manfred Mann as well as for Plastic One Band, Lennon’s first ‘group’ on the break-up of The Beatles in 1970. For good measure he also designed the cover of Revolver which, for me, is a better album and a better example of British psychedelia than is Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Oh there I go with those pesky cultural facts again, eh?

Just watch the movie. Even if you know how briefly yet how brightly Stuart’s candle burns it will still have you sobbing at the end. And there isn’t a weak performance onscreen for the entire film. I’ve just come over a little queer, as Klaus Voorman would never have said but Herr Lipp most certainly did.

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