In Backbeat, Iain Softley gives us an effective, affectionate portrait of The Beatles in Hamburg, Germany before they became the most famous rock group in the world. The main focus of the film is the triangle between best friends John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe, and Stu’s paramour, Astrid Kirchherr.
The story starts with Lennon (Ian Hart) and Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) hanging out at a Liverpool pub being obnoxious while a singer is demurely performing on stage. Her boyfriend and his mates discover that Stu has drawn a nude portrait of her and proceed to fight them, leaving Stu bloodied and in horrible shape after being repeatedly kicked in the head. This head injury will have an enduring effect on Sutcliffe’s life.
Lennon convinces Stu, whose real love is painting, to buy a bass guitar and join his band. The boys go to a particularly seedy part of Hamburg called the Reeperbahn District for a regular gig at a club featuring strippers. At this point, The Beatles are a five-piece consisting of Lennon, Sutcliffe, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and drummer, Pete Best. The musical performances of the film are exciting to behold. Their musicianship is dynamic, with the occasional exception of Stuart, who sometimes turned his back to the audience. Instead of sound-a-likes, the audio of the musical numbers consisted of various members of the bands of the early ’90s including Dave Grohl, David Pirner, Thurston Moore, and Mike Mills jamming on rock songs that The Beatles cut their teeth to in the early days.
Tensions begin to come between Sutcliffe and Lennon when the band meets photographer, Astrid Kirchherr (the divine Sheryl Lee). She is introduced to The Beatles when her lifelong friend/lover, Klaus Voormann, brings her the club to see them. There is an instant spark between Stuart and Astrid. She introduces the band to a bohemian artist scene. Stuart feels like he belongs, while Lennon seems intimidated because he doesn’t quite fit into it or understand the scene, though he definitely wants to. John is also attracted to Astrid but becomes jealous because she’s into Stuart. The question of Lennon’s jealousy is an intricate part of the story-line. It is determined that he is not jealous of Stuart, but of Astrid taking him away.
Astrid becomes integral to Stu pursuing his painting and while her influence on him and the band become a vital part of The Beatles’ early days. She photographs them in black and white, her preferred style, and brings out quite a cool image for the band. They highlighted the boys’ growing confidence as a group and the photos represent them perfectly in their Hamburg era.
When Astrid does a private photo session with Stu, the two realize they are falling in love. They hang out together at times when Stu is supposed to be with the band. This causes problems between John and The Beatles, in particular Paul, because they want him out. John threatens that if Stu goes, he goes, but they all know that he won’t because they feel at the time that they can be big.
Astrid combs forward Stuart’s pompadour into bangs in what essentially becomes The Beatles mop-top hairdo. Klaus Voormann had that haircut first. John sees Stuart’s new look and scoffs at it. Eventually, all of The Beatles would have that haircut at the beginning of their fame and the look became iconic.
The love story between Astrid and Stu is put on temporary hold when German officials deported the band back to Liverpool because George was just 17 (you know what I mean- sorry, I couldn’t resist). Back in Liverpool, Lennon and Sutcliffe discuss Astrid. John informs Stu that she thinks that the two friends fancy each other in a homosexual way. Stu corrects him by explaining that she just knows that they love each other.
When The Beatles get back (I know, I’ll stop it) to Hamburg and the lovers are reunited, the pull away from The Beatles seems inevitable for Stu. He gets into art school in Hamburg. John’s girlfriend, Cynthia Powell (soon to be Lennon), visits. John, Cynthia, Astrid, and Stuart go on a beach holiday together. At this point, it’s cemented that Stu will stay in Hamburg to marry Astrid while Paul would replace him on bass in the band.
The dialogue between the four on holiday was particularly poignant and revealing:
Cynthia (to Astrid): “All I ever wanted is John. He’s all I ever wanted,”
Astrid (to Cynthia): “John wants the world”
John (to Astrid, about Astrid): “She was the girl I always wanted. The girl of me dreams. like Brigitte Bardot…I might’ve fallen in love with her, but she fell in love with me best friend.”
Astrid (to John): “I love him, John. I do.”
John: “Yeah, don’t we all.”
Stuart (to John): “You don’t need me, John. You never did.”
John (To Stuart) “There goes Stuart Sutcliffe, that’s what they’ll say. He could’ve been in The Beatles.”
Stuart: “He fell in love with a German girl. He could’ve been in The Beatles, but he never learned to play.”
The Beatles went back to Liverpool without Stu. He begins to get severe headaches, most likely due to the beating he took in Liverpool. One time he blacks out and gets angry and violent at Klaus and Astrid, accusing them of getting back together. He apologizes and doesn’t know what happened. Astrid accepts his apology.
When Astrid and Stu get a copy of The Beatles’ first single, she begins to worry that he will eventually regret not staying with them and becoming famous. He assures her that he never would. She leaves the room for a minute and Stuart clutches his head and screams for her. He tells her, “I’m sorry”, and dies. Astrid screams and cries. The Beatles return and Astrid shares the news. John is devastated. She sees The Beatles perform Twist and Shout onstage and walks out among a sea of screaming fans.
Ian Hart was a perfect choice to play John Lennon. He, in fact, already had in an independent film called The Hours and Times a few years earlier. His chemistry in Backbeat with Stephen Dorff as Stuart is really moving. The film represents their friendship with true heart.
Sheryl Lee plays Astrid with grace, luminescence, and ultimate coolness. She was primarily known at the time as Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks. Her performance as Astrid is memorable and touching, still prominent in the mind 25 years later. When she breaks down during the scene in which Stu dies, we are reminded that Sheryl Lee is one of the best screen screamers ever. She’s up there with Janet Leigh, for sure. And their last names are pronounced the same! How about that?
Iain Softley does a beautiful job directing this love story of three people set near the beginning of the history of The Beatles. Backbeat is thoughtful and energetic and although the movie ends with sadness, the viewer is left with a sense of satisfaction and love. It truly rocks.