Finding success with a rock band will inevitably lead to a close look being taken at a musician's early life, with some of it passing into popular legend regardless of the truth of it. Think of the fabled meeting between Mick and Keith on the same train, one with a set of Chuck Berry records under his arm, which led to them talking, The Rolling Stones and the success that followed. Oliver Stone bought into the full legend of Jim Morrison telling Ray Manzarek on Venice Beach of the concerts that he'd seen in his head whilst the story of the 'I Hate Pink Floyd' T-shirt that John Lydon wore to Malcolm and Vivienne's Sex shop revealed their desire to make punk as much about the music as it was about style.
The Beatles' stay in Hamburg in the early-sixties is similarly legendary but where Hamburg is only a footnote in the careers of The Searchers, Gary Glitter (as Paul Raven) and the band what would, much later, become Mott The Hoople, the city remains with The Beatles until well into the seventies. Whilst much of the influence of Hamburg is doubtless due to their gelling as a band whilst living there, a large part of it will be as a result of Stuart Sutcliffe - artist, best friend of John Lennon and one-time member of The Beatles - who died there in 1961, only months before The Beatles released Love Me Do. Backbeat is his story.
In Liverpool at the start of the sixties, John Lennon and his best friend Stuart Sutcliffe are members of The Beatles but in spite of John's enthusiasm, Stuart's heart isn't in performing. Instead, as a talented artist, Stuart only looks at The Beatles as a means to pass his time, make a little money and meet girls but when The Beatles move to Hamburg to play in a club on the Reeperbahn, Stuart meets Astrid Kirchherr and they begin dating, which only fuels Lennon's anger both towards his friend and against the woman who he feels is tearing his band apart...
As the director of Backbeat, Iain Softley, points out numerous times on this Special Edition that this is not the story of The Beatles but that of Stuart Sutcliffe. In particular, Backbeat looks at the relationship that Stuart had with John Lennon and Astrid Kirchherr, a photographer that the band met whilst in Hamburg who would document the band through a series of famous black-and-white photographs. The relationship between Sutcliffe and Lennon is one of those strong bonds between artists that forms early in the careers of both but which seem to last even after the passing away of one half of it.
Think of the relationship between Lou Reed and Andy Warhol, which lingered in Reed's life long after The Velvet Underground cut off all ties with Warhol sometime after the release of their debut. Warhol remained such a presence in Reed's life that, following his death, it was Reed and John Cale that composed Songs For Drella, an album of songs that celebrated Warhol's life. Think also of the remaining Rolling Stones, so haunted by the death of Brian Jones July 1969 that, in 1998, when Ronnie Wood put on a 12-string Vox Teardrop guitar - the kind favoured by Jones - Keith Richards told him to, "Take that fucking thing off!"
As for Sutcliffe, his ghost and that of Hamburg lingers throughout the career of The Beatles. The band's early look of collarless suits and mop top hair were developed in Hamburg by Astrid Kirchherr and, much later, Sutcliffe's face would appear on the front cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Sutcliffe is on the far left hand side, third row up beside what looks like a shop dummy). Klaus Voorman, who dated Kirchherr before she met Sutcliffe, would go on to design the cover of The Beatles' Revolver album and he was there again in the Plastic Ono band when John Lennon recorded Imagine in 1971. Lennon's attraction to Yoko Ono is a parallel of Sutcliffe's to Kirchherr with Lennon's drive towards purity in his songwriting comparable to Sutcliffe's decision to leave The Beatles to continue painting just when they were on the verge of success.
Although it is unsaid in this film, given that it ends shortly after The Beatles leave Hamburg but before they release Love Me Do, Softley impresses upon the viewer that with Sutcliffe dying before he could produce either a strong portfolio or enjoy any amount of fame from his work, it left Lennon to see to both. In the looks that Softley directed from Ian Hart's Lennon to Stephen Dorff's Sutcliffe, particularly when the film shows Lennon leaving, there is the sense of Lennon being driven by a need to prove himself to Sutcliffe and that he would not be forgotten about. That he was included on the Sgt Pepper sleeve would seem to bear that out and Softley is no less aware of it here.
As such, this film rests on the performance of Ian Hart as John Lennon - his second, the first being opposite David Angus as Brian Epstein in Christopher Münch's The Hours And The Times - and it suffers slightly when he is offscreen. It is up to Hart to convey to the audience the jealousy felt by Lennon towards the relationship between Sutcliffe and Kirchherr, which is best and most subtly played when Lennon, Sutcliffe, Kirchherr and Cynthia Powell, who would later become Cynthia Lennon, spend a night on a beach. It is there, with Kirchherr and Lennon talking together through the night, that you can understand why Lennon would eventually leave Cynthia for Yoko and how out of place she looks in the world that he's moving into. On the beach, with Lennon dressed like a fifties rocker and Sutcliffe and Kirchherr dressed in a low-key, existentialist style, Cynthia looks to be a world away from them in a twinset and hair scarf. Although Hart's Lennon says later that it was Kirchherr that he really wanted, not Sutcliffe, saying it aloud is unnecessary as Hart's performance throughout the film makes it clear.
Unfortunately, Sheryl Lee and Stephen Dorff, despite being a fabulously attractive couple, are not strong enough to carry this film without Hart. As a couple they work well around Hart as they do in the scenes when Kirchherr has to confront Kai Wiesinger's Klaus Voormann given that, in both examples, they're required to put some passion into their work. When they are left alone reading Rimbaud to one another or visiting a cinema to see Jean-Pierre Melville's Les Enfants Terribles, it looks no different to listening to beautiful but terribly dull students quoting Sartre to one another, ignorant of how blessed their lives really are. Here, however, it's only Hart's Lennon who pierces the pretensions of Kirchherr's friends, including one who has memorised War And Peace in the original Russian, with a blunt, "It's all dick!"
However, where Backbeat is absolutely saved is in its use of music. When Iain Softley asked Don Was to create a soundtrack album, it was with the proviso that he create a punk album of rock'n'roll songs not one of Beatles soundalikes. To keep to Softley's order, Was put together a band comprised of R.E.M.'s Mike Mills, drummer Dave Grohl (then of Nirvana, now of The Foo Fighters), Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, singer Greg Dulli (then of The Afghan Whigs, now of The Twilight Singers), Gumball's Don Fleming and Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and had them record a bunch of rock'n'roll standards, which included Money, Long Tall Sally, Twist And Shout and Carol. Frankly, no band this early in their career is as good as The Beatles are meant to be here but Backbeat sounds wonderful when turned up loud. If there's any criticism it's that the dialogue is far too low in the mix when compared to the music but, really, just turn it up and enjoy one of the best music scores to any film outside of Streets Of Fire. And that is high praise indeed.
Anamorphically presented on DVD in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 is a slightly soft transfer with admittedly good detail in the foreground but lacking definition in the background. Colours are good, however, and the transfer handles the nightclub scenes without any noticeable faults.
Whilst it was given a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix for the Region 1 release, here we get the original 2.0 stereo soundtrack and there really isn't a lot to complain about, particularly with the Backbeat band sounding as good as they do here.
With this being a Special Edition, Universal have included an impressive number of extras, many of which have been produced only recently:
Commentary: Despite being billed as featuring Iain Softley, Ian Hart and Stephen Dorff, it's obvious that Dorff was not in the same room as the others. As such, his tired-sounding sections lose out in comparison to the Softley/Hart contributions, in which they discuss the making of the film, the reaction of the remaining Beatles to the film - McCartney has criticised Backbeat for showing Hart's Lennon singing Long Tall Sally, when it was McCartney's song in the Hamburg gigs, which Softley talks about and explains his reasons for editing the film as it was - and the true-life relationship between Stuart Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirchherr.
Interview With Iain Softley (28m32s): In this, Softley discusses the background of the story and his intention behind the making of the film. He doesn't really go into very much detail on the making of the film, thereby avoiding any duplication of the commentary, but focuses instead on the planning of the film, his meetings with Astrid Kirchherr and Julian Lennon and the casting of actors and musicians.
Interview With Iain Softley and Ian Hart (9m54s): They can laugh about it now but when Backbeat was being made, it was at the same time as Four Weddings And A Funeral and the latter was not expected to perform at all well in comparison to this Lennon/Sutcliffe story. Filmed together, Softley and Hart reminisce over the Four Weddings story as well the filming in Liverpool, their favourite scenes in the film and playing as The Beatles for the crew.
Stills Gallery: Nineteen photographs from the film and behind the scenes are included here with a brief description attached to each.
Deleted Scenes (3m00s): Two deleted scenes are included, one of Sutcliffe telling a joke to Kirchherr and another of the couple getting dressed to go out before undressing each other.
Casting Sessions (6m43s): Filmed on fuzzy videotape with matching sound, this features the casting tapes of actors Stephen Dorff, Gary Bakewell and Wolf Kahler as well as footage of Bakewell, Ian Hart, Chris O'Neill and Scott Williams performing Twist And Shout as The Beatles.
Director's Essay: Over eighteen pages of text, this covers much of the same material as the interview with Iain Softley but in a shorter format.
A Conversation With Astrid Kirchherr (7m02s): Featuring an audio recording of Kirchherr over footage from the film and her original photographs of the band from their time in Hamburg, she talks about first meeting Sutcliffe, their relationship and his painting.
TV Featurette (12m02s): With footage from the film and interviews with the cast, this is a typical made-for-television press piece.
Unfortunately, footage of the Backbeat band performing live at a number of shows during 1994 to promote the soundtrack album and film, such as their playing of Helter Skelter at the MTV Movie Awards ceremony, is not included here. Had it been included, along with more information on Sutcliffe's paintings - the DVD feels a little light on that last point - this would have been a much better release but, as it is, it really is very good.
I tend to find myself enjoying this film more than I think I should. Other than the music and Ian Hart's performance, there really isn't that much else to recommend it - Beatles fans will find that the actors playing McCartney, Harrison and Pete Best are not called upon to do very much - but both are so strong that Backbeat does hold up. Unfortunately, it does tend to tail off from the time at which Lennon leaves Hamburg but, until then, this is one of the better rock biopics.
Yet the best thing about Backbeat is how Softley fashioned a story out of a relationship that very few would have heard of had it not been for this film and, in doing so, illustrated just how much of The Beatles career was owed to their time in Hamburg. In doing so, Softley manages to take the story of an unfamiliar figure and make it appear as though we had known of him all along. If that, the superb soundtrack and the sight of a scabrous Lennon sounds enough, then Backbeat is a fine film, presented here on a very good DVD.