This 1994 Film Four film concentrates on the story of Stuart Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirchherr. Indeed, the actors playing these two roles are the two leads of the film. The three Beatles – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, with Pete Best as the Beatles' drummer – have a predominantly secondary role. Ringo Starr himself only appears as the briefest of cameos – for most of his screen time only his feet are visible, as he lies asleep on the top of a bunk bed, with only a one-second glance at his face.
Backbeat takes place over a period between 1960 and 1962, with the trips to Hamburg and Stuart Sutcliffe's involvement in the Beatles, from joining to leaving and his death, of pre-eminence. It is Stuart Sutcliffe's story that is portrayed. That the film shows a comparatively short period is to the film's benefit as it is able to tell the story that it does in greater depth than The Birth Of The Beatles.
Again, as with Birth Of The Beatles, great steps are made to emphasise its authenticity. This is very evident in the end credits, which state 'what happened next' to the major characters in the film. This, as with chronicling real events, such as the building of the Berlin Wall, gives the film a documentary feel. Among the credits, special thanks are given to Stuart Sutcliffe's younger sister, Pauline Sutcliffe, who also co-wrote the film's book tie-in1 as well as Astrid Kirchherr herself and Klaus Voormann. This emphasises the film's authenticity, although other key characters that the director talked to sadly and strangely aren't credited. Iain Softely states in his interview
'I tracked down Millie and Pauline Sutcliffe, Stuart's mother and sister, Bill Harry, editor of Merseybeat, and Arthur Ballard, Stuart and John’s art teacher.'
This, though, does not provide us with information why Millie Sutcliffe, Bill Harry and especially the famous artist Arthur Ballard, who is even a character in the film, are not given any on-screen credit.
The Backbeat book states in the prologue,
'those whose lives are devoted to collating facts about the Beatles may pounce on mistakes and omissions while scrutinising Backbeat'.
This sentence implies two things; firstly that the team behind the film knows that their film contains mistakes and omissions. Secondly, as the word 'may' conveys permission, these mistakes and omissions can be investigated and scrutinised.
The director, Iain Softley, in an interview on the DVD has said that 'The last thing I wanted to do was tell a story about The Beatles in Hamburg from a biographical point of view' and he tried 'to not get diverted into telling a rock and roll biopic'. This is a strange comment for a film marketed as a Rock and Roll biopic. The film's very poster image and cover for the DVD shows not only the faces of Stuart Sutcliffe and Astrid, but also the Beatles in black and white poses copied from the With The Beatles album. The film's tagline, 'He had to choose between his best friend, the woman he loved… and the greatest rock & roll band in the world' screams that this is a Beatles biopic.
|Sheryl Lee||Astrid Kirchherr|
|Stephen Dorff||Stuart Sutcliffe|
|Ian Hart||John Lennon|
|Gary Bakewell||Paul McCartney|
|Chris O'Neill||George Harrison|
|Scot Williams||Pete Best|
|Kai Wiesinger||Klaus Voormann|
|Jennifer Ehle||Cynthia Powell|
|Frieda Kelly||Mrs. Harrison|
|James Doherty||Tony Sheridan|
|Paul Duckworth||Ringo Starr|
The songs the characters of the Beatles perform in the film are:
- Good Golly Miss Molly
- I Remember You
- Twenty Flight Rock
- Long Tall Sally
- Rock 'n' Roll Music
- Love Me Tender
- My Bonnie
- Twist & Shout
- Money (That's What I Want)
- Slow Down
- Please Mr Postman
The Backbeat Boys:
|Greg Dulli||Vocals||The Afghan Whigs|
|Don Fleming||Guitar/ Vocals||Gumball|
|Dave Grohl||Drums||Nirvana & Foo Fighters|
|Mike Mills||Bass Guitar / Vocals||REM|
|Thurston Moore||Guitar||Sonic Youth|
|Dave Pirner||Vocals||Soul Asylum|
Other songs not performed by the Beatles featured prominently in the film, especially 'Kiss Me, Honey', 'I Remember You' and 'Roadrunner'. A Backbeat album was released to tie in with the film, however it only lasts a very disappointing 27 minutes and its leaflet concentrates on informing you about the films' production credits and has the same background photograph of a screaming girl twice. The running order also does not follow the order in which the songs are performed in the film.
- Money (That's What I Want)
- Long Tall Sally
- Bad Boy
- Twist and Shout
- Please Mr. Postman
- C'mon Everybody
- Rock & Roll Music
- Slow Down
- Good Golly Miss Molly
- Twenty Flight Rock
Greg Dulli was the lead vocal on eight of the twelve tracks. Dave Pirner was lead vocals on 'Money (That's What I Want)', which was also released as a single, 'C'mon Everybody' and '20 Flight Rock' and Mike Mills was lead vocals on 'Roadrunner'. Bizarrely, the album contains a song not in the Backbeat film; 'Bad Boy'.
A separate album containing 7 of Don Was' soft jazz background music was also released. Considering that the main album was under half an hour long, having to buy a second album when there was more than enough space left on the main album to contain the additional material just emphasis how poor value the original album was.
Similarly, the 'Money (That's What I Want)' single’s B-Side was 'Dizzy Miss Lizzy', a song missing from the Backbeat album. It really does seem a poor showing that two albums were released. Afterall, the Beatles soundtrack album Yellow Submarine contained a song half and a soundtrack half, as did the original American A Hard Day’s Night and Help albums. As the real Beatles themselves combined songs and background music into one album, for a Beatles biopic to release two albums and not one seems an out-of-character decision. Perhaps the reason behind this also explains why the song 'Money' is the soundtrack album opener.
The soundtrack, which was produced by Don Was, was carefully chosen to avoid any Lennon/McCartney originals yet instead shows the Beatles playing songs that they did indeed sing during this period. However, despite this, the soundtrack was one area that Paul McCartney disapproved of, especially the presentation of John as the sole lead singer2. Paul McCartney felt, with justification, that the film gave his character a much-reduced role and put his musical ability and contribution in the background. Paul McCartney, one of the 20th Century's greatest songwriters, is criminally all but ignored in a film that shows his youth and defining experiences.
The soundtrack however, won the 1994 BAFTA Award for Best Film Music.
In the DVD's commentary the director reveals that he intended that the John Lennon song 'Love' be played over the end captions. This would have been a particularly appropriate song, both because it perfectly matches the mood of the moment and the underlying theme of the film. It is also a track that Klaus Voorman, a central and indeed essential character in the film, played bass guitar on, having been taught the basics of the bass from Stuart Sutcliffe. However, permission to use the track was denied. Sometimes being an award winning film just isn’t enough.
The Film begins with a montage of typical 1950s and early 1960s film clips, none of which seem to add anything to the film, unlike the screaming Beatlemania that introduces Birth of The Beatles. Similarly to Birth Of The Beatles and even the film Yellow Submarine the Liver Building in Liverpool is shown to introduce the setting of Liverpool. The opening song performed by an innocent looking girl in a pub, 'Kiss Me, Honey', contrasts with the 'Beatles' song over the end credits, 'Slow Down'. The slow song at the start is meant to represent what British music and entertainment was like before the Beatles, compared with the Beatles' dominance at the end of the film.3
The film's opening sequence has John and Stuart at a pub that they shortly vacate when chased by sailors who assault Stuart, giving him a nasty blow to the head. This takes place before the Beatles' first trip to Hamburg – which contrasts with Birth of the Beatles, where Stuart receives a blow to the head between the two Hamburg trips. This attack is highlighted with Stu covered in bright red blood of the sort normally reserved for virgins in Hammer Horror films, and an annoying reverberating stringy noise in the background. This noise demonstrates that the film has artistic pretensions – whenever Stu acts or suffers anything as a consequence of this attack, a bright visceral red and the annoying vibrating noise always accompany the scene. John's reaction to this attack is the prescient prediction, 'You killed him!'
In Backbeat, the opinion of the doctor in the film is that Stu is suffering from a blow to the head. This contrasts with Birth Of The Beatles, where Stuart Sutcliffe stedfastly refuses to see a doctor. The book tie-in4 emphasis the drugs and also mentions a head injury caused when Stu fell down the stairs to the Hamburg attic he used as a studio. Dr Peter Hommelhoff, Director of Medicine in a Hamburg Hospital however has stated that Stuart Sutcliffe's death was caused by the mixture of alcohol and Preludin. Stu Sutcliffe’s symptoms including the headaches, coupled with the post-mortem report, all indicate his death was drug related. The film portrays Stu as the innocent victim of a brutal assault which caused his death. This theory, though dramatic and removes all blame for his death from Stuart Sutcliffe himself, seems does not seem grounded in fact.
Backbeat shows itself as being inspired by The Birth Of The Beatles as it too properly introduces Stuart Sutcliffe in a scene in which he is painting a nude model. In Birth of the Beatles Stuart was merely one of many young people, including John and Cynthia Lennon, at an art class, whereas in Backbeat, Stuart alone is painting the model. This is a stronger entrance for Stuart as he is presented as a serious, dedicated artist rather than a school pupil.
The Beatles themselves are portrayed as more likeable than their Birth of the Beatles counterparts. There is more friendly banter between them, even when Paul criticises Stu's bass playing, you know that, as Paul says in the film, 'whatever I said, I never meant it'. George Harrison is the Beatle whose family life is presented in a rather amusing scene with his mother giving him scones. Indeed, in a nice touch on the filmmaker's part, George Harrison's mother is played by Frieda Kelly, who was secretary of the Beatles' Fan Club in its earliest days and who gets a mention on the Beatles' 1963 Christmas message. Ringo, however, only has the briefest of cameos, with an under a second shot of his face and a few lingering seconds with his feet in view.
There is some dialogue that betrays the Beatles nature of the story, detracting from the story. John describes working at the KaiserKeller club in Hamburg as 'A Hard Day's Night' and Stu says he performs in a band 'Eight Days A Week'. The most inappropriate line is delivered by John Lennon; 'There goes Stuart Sutcliffe – he could have been in the Beatles'. This seems an out-of-character remark as Stuart Sutcliffe at this point had been in the Beatles for over a year. Indeed, it was Stuart who named the band the Beatles.5 This, and the fact that in early 1960, before the Hamburg trips and when playing local Liverpool venues, Stuart Sutcliffe acted as the Beatles' manager, aren’t mentioned in the film at all. It seems strange that a film about Stuart Sutcliffe’s involvement with the Beatles misses out two of his biggest contributions. It is strange that Stu in the film says '[I] never really learnt how to play' when the director in the commentary states that in his research Klaus Voorman strongly felt that Stuart Sutcliffe was a very good bass player, but had a simplistic style of playing.
The film, undeniably, is very well researched. Stuart Sutcliffe's paintings in the film are based on actual Stuart Sutcliffe paintings. The Polydor record session where the Beatles back Tony Sheridan on 'My Bonnie' actually features the genuine 'My Bonnie' recording the Beatles and Tony Sheridan made. 6 Many scenes were filmed in the genuine locations. The director, Iain Softley, has said,
'When you’re making a film that's based in some way on something that happened I think it's important from a dramatic point of view not to be enslaved to the specifics of the story... but I think you have to be true to the underlying truth of it... My rule is to make it as accurate as you can unless it gets in the way of some truth and then you perhaps interpret and alter it a little bit.'
This explains the reason why the Beatles are shown performing straight away at the KaiserKeller club, rather than begin at the Indra Club and then progress to the KaiserKeller. This, though more accurate, would have bogged the story down in unnecessary detail. The film has a montage similar to Birth of The Beatles. Birth Of The Beatles featured cuts between the Beatles initial appearances on stage and fight sequences, however the montage in Backbeat shows the Beatles' initial appearances on stage and cuts with strippers performing also. Although the club was located in the Reeperbahn district of Hamburg, and the Indra Club was a former strip club hastily converted into music venue, but without changing the décor from its former life, the Beatles did not perform on stage with strippers whilst in Hamburg.7
Yet, despite the film’s high standard of research, it still makes some strange mistakes. George Harrison in the film admits that he will be 18 in February8, yet he is shown celebrating his 18th birthday in the Cavern in March.
The film is also strongly influenced by A Hard Day's Night, most clearly in the scene in which Astrid takes the Beatles for a drink. When given a drink, the 'What do you call that?' 'Henry' dialogue is a homage from the 'What do you call that hairstyle you’re wearing?' 'Arthur' retort from the press scene in A Hard Day's Night – a scene whose dialogue is also quoted in Birth Of The Beatles.
Pete Best only has three lines in the film. In the first, when asked if he had ever been abroad, he states that he has been to the Isle of Wight. This seems an odd reply for someone born in Madras, India. In his next line he states 'drummers don’t talk' and after his final line George, amazed, exclaims 'he spoke!' For a film that emphasises one of the smaller cogs in the Beatles, this all but ignoring of another of the lesser known Beatles seems strange, especially considering that Pete Best’s face is given equal prominence to John, Paul and George in the Backbeat poster.
One of the film's nicest touches is when Astrid, who was from quite a respectable family, is introduced. Klaus brings her to the KaiserKeller club while the Beatles are playing one of the verses from 'Rock 'n' Roll Music':
'I took my loved one over 'cross the tracks
so she could hear my man a-wailin' sax
I must admit they had a rockin' band
And they were blowin’ like a hurricane
The Reeperbahn district of Hamburg certainly was ''cross the tracks' for Astrid, Klaus's 'loved one', and he had taken her there to hear the rockin' band the Beatles who certainly were going like a hurricane. Astrid's introduction coinciding with the song lyrics 'it's got a Backbeat you can't lose it', which includes the title of the film, also emphasises the film's true focus.
The tragedy of Stuart Sutcliffe is one that predates and predicts the tragedy of John Lennon. Stuart Sutcliffe falls in love with an artistic foreign woman, leaves the Beatles, moves abroad, settles down and then dies a tragic death. John Lennon would later fall in love with Yoko Ono, an artistic foreign woman, move abroad, settle down and then die a tragic death. It is perhaps this point that explains the scenes in which John is portrayed as being jealous of Stu and wanting Astrid for himself. By all accounts, in real life, John not only did not fancy Astrid, but also had little but disdain for her. The scene after Stu's death where Astrid and John kiss is never really explained in the film and did not happen in real life, so the only reason for its inclusion seems to be an attempt to draw parallels between Stuart's and John's lives and portray Astrid as an early Yoko substitute.
The Film's Reception
Iain Softley has stated that:
'One of the greatest accolades we had other than Astrid seeing the film and being very moved by it was we showed the film to Cynthia Lennon.... and after the film told us she liked it very much. The day of the premiere.... Cynthia Lennon and Julian Lennon was there… he said he was coming to see the film because his mother told him if he saw the film he would meet his father that night.'
He has also commented that Billy Preston9, who was in Hamburg with the Beatles in 1962 (but sadly does not appear in the film) felt that it was authentic.
Paul McCartney, however, has been less kind;
'One of my annoyances about the film Backbeat is that they've actually taken my rock 'n' rollness off me. They give John the song 'Long Tall Sally' to sing and he never sang it in his life. But now it's set in cement. It's like the Buddy Holly and Glenn Miller stories. The Buddy Holly Story does not even mention Norman Petty, and The Glenn Miller Story is a sugarcoated version of his life. Now Backbeat has done the same thing to the story of The Beatles.