Get back to a time when The Beatles were unknown, untamed rude boys of barely legal age. “Backbeat” revels in the period when the Brit band was chasing fame in the grimy basement clubs of Hamburg, Germany. Their talents were raw; ditto their tempers. Listen to John Lennon (Ian Hart) tangling backstage with Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell): “Are you sayin’ I’m a queer? Are you sayin’ I’m a fuckin’ fairy?” McCartney can’t figure another reason why Lennon wants no-talent Stu Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) playing bass for the Beatles. Lennon’s rage intensifies when Sutcliffe starts shagging Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee), an arty German photographer who encourages Lennon’s best mate to quit the band for a serious career as a painter. It’s a love triangle that makes “Backbeat” sound like an unholy union of Beatlemania and “Melrose Place.”
Luckily, the film is onto something more audaciously entertaining. What pulls you over the bum spots is the electrifying immediacy. You really are there, back in the early 1960s, when the lads left Liverpool to play the rathskellers. Lennon, McCartney and George Harrison (Chris O’Neill) hadn’t written any hits; they were covering R&B, rockabilly and Motown (“Twist and Shout,” “Money,” “Please Mr. Postman”). Ringo Starr hadn’t joined yet; that’s Pete Best (Scot Williams) on drums. Sutcliffe, the fifth Beatle, had been a Lennon pal since art school. Maybe Sutcliffe couldn’t play for shit, but this James Dean look-alike in black shades and leather had something Lennon valued: the cool swagger of rock & roll that would affect the Beatles long after Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage in 1962.
First-time feature director Iain Softley, who co-wrote the script, is best known for TV commercials and music videos. But his take on the sordid Hamburg underground is refreshingly unslick and wittily atmospheric to boot. “People have died in here — you can smell’em,” says Lennon on being shown the band’s living quarters.
Though Backbeat is an independent film, few producers can squeeze a tiny budget as artfully as Stephen Woolley (“The Crying Game”) and Finola Dwyer, who gather experts, from cinematographer Ian Wilson to production designer Joseph Bennett, for a wizardly re-creation of time and place. It’s all here — the peeling walls, tired strippers, brawling crowd, anonymous sex and the eight days a week of shows that keep the lads on speed just to keep going.
The music is the film’s gift. Instead of tapping into old Beatles records, producer Don Was gathers a onetime-only band to deliver the goods while the actors go deftly through the motions. You’re hearing drummer Dave Grohl, bassist Mike Mills and guitarists Thurston Moore and Don Fleming. On vocals, it’s Dave Pirner for McCartney and Greg Dulli for Lennon. The early Beatle sound isn’t reproduced; it’s re-imagined. What hits the ear is joyously ragged, alive with a punk-grunge edginess that nails a stake in the heart of greatest-hits nostalgia. The mood is defiant, raucous, erotic and experimental.
That’s the mood offstage as well. It’s the key to Lennon’s affinity for Sutcliffe, an artist in a fever to use the world as his palette. The American actor Dorff (“The Power of One,” “Judgment Night”) could have coasted by on his looks and passable Liverpudlian accent. But he finds both the sweetness and the violent frustration in Sutcliffe. Dorff is strikingly good. Sutcliffe’s yen for Kirchherr extends to her intellectual sphere. She is one of the existentialists who dress in beatnik black with hair combed down on their foreheads (the main influence on the Beatle cut).
Lee (Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks) was born in Germany, and her blond beauty and alluring passivity are well suited to what we know of Kirchherr, who assisted Softley in his research. Kirchherr’s interest in Sutcliffe went from camera subject (her photos of the Beatles are justly famous) to grand passion. Despite Lee’s efforts, her underwritten role is overshadowed by the relationship between Sutcliffe and Lennon.
“It’s all dick,” says Lennon of Kirchherr’s world. He’s jealous, she says, because she has Sutcliffe. Then on a beach, just yards from his fiancTe, Cynthia (Jennifer Ehle), Lennon tells Kirchherr she’s the girl he might have loved. Backbeat has an irritating way of backing off its own sexual speculation and dragging the film into sentimental excess.
What sustains our rooting interest is the actors, especially Ian Hart, who’s a knockout as the abrasively funny and insecure Lennon. Two years ago, Hart played Lennon in Christopher Munch’s “The Hours and Times,” about Lennon’s holiday in Spain, circa 1963, with the band’s homosexual manager, Brian Epstein. He’s equally uncanny this time about seizing the telling detail. In bed, Sutcliffe in the top bunk, Lennon below, they shag female groupies but converse only with each other. “How are you finding it here in Hamburg, Mr. Sutcliffe?” asks Lennon, interrupting his pal in midfuck. Hart makes us see that Lennon is less keen on sex with Sutcliffe than on achieving a deeper closeness. Hart infuses the role with romantic longing.
Purists may spur Backbeat bashing. The forces that motivate Sutcliffe and Kirchherr are sketchy and rob the film of resonance. But through his lasting effect on Lennon, Sutcliffe emerges as a prime influence on the Beatles. These were the days when the lads played live and developed the insurgent spirit that they would later ride to glory in the studio. “Backbeat” catches the Beatles in the act of discovering themselves. It’s a thrilling spectacle that rocks the house and a lot of lazy misconceptions about how legends are made.