Backbeat is directed by Iain Softley. It stars Stephen Dorff, Ian Hart, and Sheryl Lee. The film was originally released in 1994. Don Was composed the film’s score. Shout! Factory reissued the film on Blu-ray as part of its Shout! Selects line in 2019.
In the early 1960s, The Beatles have only just begun as a group, featuring guitarists John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, and drummer Pete Best. Struggling to get off the ground, the group goes to Hamburg, Germany, where they perform in sleazy bars and clubs, playing cover songs to win over the audiences. Bassist Sutcliffe, himself an artist at heart, finds himself infatuated with German photographer/artist Astrid Kirchherr, despite her already being in a relationship. Ultimately, he must decide between a career with a rock and roll band on the rise, or to pursue the woman he loves, as he suffers from health ailments.
How many movies have been made about The Beatles, including biopics and documentaries alike? Let’s just say there are a whole lot of them. Backbeat is unique in that it chooses to focus on the band well before they were the hugely-successful pop band the world knows and loves, during their early days on the rise, playing in dirty, rough-and-tumble clubs in Germany where they regularly share the stage with strippers. The film’s primary focus is the relationship between Stuart Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirchherr, and seeing the relationship and how it conflicts with the friendship of Sutcliffe and John Lennon makes for some riveting drama. An all-star cast of musicians brings the sounds of the era to life as well, and while many elements and characters come off as one-dimensional and barely explored at all, at large Backbeat is a worthwhile 100-minute diversion for Beatles and rock and roll fans.
The principal cast includes Ian Hart as John Lennon (probably best known to audiences these days for playing Quirinus Quirrell in the first Harry Potter movie), Sheryl Lee as Astrid Kirchherr, and Stephen Dorff as Stuart Sutcliffe. While I’m honestly not familiar with the majority of these actors, everyone is cast perfectly. Hart’s Lennon is the true highlight of the casting, with his razor-sharp wit and take-no-shit attitude. Sheryl Lee shines as Kirchherr; the actual Astrid Kirchherr has praised her casting and relationship with the band as it’s depicted here, and rightfully so. The conflicted Stuart Sutcliffe, played by Dorff, is another highlight, and someone who’s often neglected with people who discuss the band’s history. Opening up this chapter of the band, before international stardom, is a highlight unto itself. The film’s best scenes are the relationship between Kirchherr and Sutcliffe as it unfolds, as it’s clear he’s going to pursue what he loves despite the potential for stardom. Remarks made by John about threatening to leave the band if Sutcliffe is let go are especially profound considering, once again, he’s often neglected when people discuss the band’s history.
One thing I should warn potential viewers about – The film is rated R for a reason. Sure, Beatles music is widely beloved by worldwide audiences of all ages now, but this film depicts the young band members in a sleazy, dirty environment, where nudity and free love aren’t exactly rare. There are sex scenes and plenty of full female nudity. That said, painting a picture of a dirty Hamburg in early 1960s Germany is one of the things the movie does best, as those who give the movie a chance are bound to agree with.
While I admire the movie’s decision to focus on the early days of the band and the Sutcliffe/Kirchherr relationship and the Sutcliffe/Lennon friendship, the biggest problem of the movie is it neglects everyone else. Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Pete Best all get cast aside and are one-dimensional, only getting in the occasional dialogue and not serving any real purpose (anyone who knows The Beatles knows Paul and George were instrumental in the band’s success in oh-so-many ways). This certainly doesn’t ruin the film, but you’ll wish they had more screen time and emphasis.
Of course, a movie about The Beatles doesn’t work without music. The movie does not feature any of the classic Lennon/McCartney compositions known around the world which would top charts, as the movie’s events predate them. The filmmakers opted not to go for Beatles soundalikes, and instead chose more wild and aggressive punk/alternative musicians, in an attempt to recapture how raucous and rambunctious the band appeared and sounded on stage to young audiences at the time; nothing like the band had been seen in these times. Musicians performing on the film’s soundtrack include Dave Grohl (Nirvana/Foo Fighters), Henry Rollins (Black Flag/Rollins Band), Mike Mills (REM), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth), Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs), and Don Fleming (Gumball). The energy of these musicians definitely brings the music scenes to life. The original score was composed by Don Was (probably best known for his band Was (Not Was), who had a hit in the 1980s with “Walk the Dinosaur.”)
Shout! Factory reissued the film as part of its specialty Shout! Selects line on Blu-ray. The video quality is adequate; it doesn’t rank with the best transfers of films from the era, though given the gritty and grimy setting and filming locations, I can’t imagine the film looking a whole lot better than it does here. That said, I don’t think fans will be too disappointed to finally have the movie in 1080p with a transfer which is solid overall. Audio fares better, especially in the scenes of music performances, which is to be expected.
The Shout! Selects does not include any new bonus features, although it does include the majority of the features from the older Universal DVD releases. Features include a commentary from cast and crew, a conversation with the real Astrid Kirchherr, two brief deleted scenes, and further interviews and casting sessions. The supplemental packaged is topped off with a trailer for the film.
Backbeat presents an interesting look at the early Beatles, including a much-needed look into the oft-neglected life of Stuart Sutcliffe, who never gets enough credit, and died tragically young. Beatles and rock and roll fans will want to check out Backbeat, but should be warned it’s an R-rated movie which shows the dirty, gritty environments where the band got their start. While the Shout! Select Blu-ray release isn’t a perfect package, consisting of an adequate-but-not-great transfer and bonus features from older releases of the movie, fans should be satisfied with the release overall.
DISCLAIMER: All images in the review are the property of their respective owners, including PolyGram, Gramercy, Universal, and Shout! Factory. For promotional use only. All rights reserved.