The early days of The Beatles, when the yet-to-be-fab four were chasing fame and fräuleins in the grimy basement clubs of Hamburg, Germany, provide a colourful backdrop for the story of Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), the original Beatles bassist who died of a brain haemorrhage in 1962.
The film begins in the summer of 1960, with The Beatles sailing for the continent, and centres on artist Stu’s intense affair with style-setting photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee). She takes Sutcliffe to art student parties, where existentialists in black polo necks listen to free jazz. He is smitten.
The film’s main asset, though, is the charismatic performance of Ian Hart as a sardonic, insecure, angry young John Lennon, loving, envying and influenced by Stu and Astrid.
“It’s all dick,” says Lennon of Kirchher’s world. John is jealous, she says, because she has Sutcliffe.
The tension between Sutcliffe and Lennon ends with a physical fight. In the film, the confrontation is presented as fisticuffs that end in a tearful hug, but Sutcliffe’s sister, Pauline, later wrote, “That was not even close to what really happened. Stuart said John kicked him in the head, and I’m convinced that kick was what eventually led to Stuart’s death.”
Unsurprisingly, her 2001 book caused something of a flurry among Beatles fans, and in 2003 she denied making a direct link between the events.
While a huge improvement on the dismal 1979 TV movie Birth of the Beatles, Iain Softley’s account of the Fab Four’s Hamburg days is rather like their music of the time: loud, raw and full of energy.
When the producers tried to figure out who should do the soundtrack, they approached Ringo Starr for suggestions. He told them, “Get a bunch of young kids who’ve never played a Beatles song in their lives.”
And so the excellent Virgin soundtrack (all covers of covers produced by Don Was) features Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, Mike Mills of REM on bass, and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth on guitar with vocals from Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum, Greg Dulli from The Afghan Whigs and Black Flag singer, Henry Rollins.
Paul McCartney reportedly didn’t like Backbeat: “One of my annoyances about the film Backbeat is that they’ve actually taken my rock’n’rollness off me,” he complained. “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.”
Henry Rollins (singing vocals)
Greg Dulli (singing vocals)
Dave Pirner (singing vocals)