‘Backbeat’ tells little known story of the Beatles and original bandmate, Stuart Sutcliff

Ian Hart (left) is John Lennon and Stephen Dorff is Stuart Sutcliff in 'Backbeat'
Ian Hart (left) is John Lennon and Stephen Dorff is Stuart Sutcliff in ‘Backbeat’

The story of the Beatles is probably one of the most often examined tales in rock and roll history. Yet throughout that history, one story was left behind, as it happened before they became famous.

Stuart Sutcliff was the band’s first bass guitarist, and left the band shortly before they rocketed to stardom. But before he could witness just how famous his former bandmates would become, Sutcliff died of a massive brain hemorrhage.

For the first time his story was told in 1993’s Backbeat, a somewhat slow but interesting film. This isn’t really a great film, nor is it the pseudo-bio pic of the Beatles that one might expect from it. The story is about Sutcliff, his love affair with a German photographer, and his friendship with John Lennon.

We first meet Sutcliff as he hangs out at a club with his best friend, Lennon. The two run afoul with a collection of tough guys, and after a brief chase sequence that plays like an homage to the collection of films the Beatles made, Sutcliff is violently beat by several of the guys. This is meant as an attempted explanation for the brain condition that will later kill him. It is then established that Sutcliff is a rather talented artist. Painting is his first love, but he agrees to play in Lennon’s band as a bass guitarist.

Along with the rest of the band — which includes Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best — they journey to Hamburg, Germany to play in a seedy club. While there, Sutcliff meets Astrid, with whom he falls deeply in love. This almost instantly creates a rift between him and Lennon, as well as the rest of the band. Eventually, he chooses his art and Astrid over the band.

Okay, I kind of give a lot away here, but the fate of Sutcliff is pretty well known at this point for anyone interested in Beatles lore. However, if you are a Beatles nut, this film may not necessarily be what you’re looking for. That’s chiefly because Backbeat really doesn’t focus much on the Beatles. In fact, the film seems to work rather hard to avoid being about the Beatles at all. Probably a little too hard.

Ultimately, the film is Sutcliff’s. When he meets Astrid and begins his affair with her, the other characters really become secondary to the story. Just like they become secondary to Sutcliff’s life. A reluctant member, who is first to admit he doesn’t play guitar very well, he is quick to immerse himself in Astrid’s counter-culture world.

The difficult part of this film is that Sutcliff’s story, ultimately, isn’t really that interesting. At least to me. What draws you in here is his connection with the Beatles, and that ultimately outshines his own story. Once he starts away from the band, the emotional connection goes with it. It’s interesting in an historical aspect to understand what happened to him, but beyond that I found myself wanting to see more of the Beatles than him once they parted ways.

Sutcliff and his girlfriend, Astrid, actually had a lot of influence over what would become the look of the Beatles, but that is not directly stated in the film itself (although the text at the end does indicate this). For me, the film really falters because I simply didn’t find Sutcliff particularly interesting. His film incarnation, anyway. Regardless of that, I think Stephen Dorff delivers a great performance, as does Ian Hart as Lennon.

This “collector’s edition” DVD is also terrifically packaged. It includes a commentary by Iain Softley, the film’s director and co-writer, as well as a conversation with Astrid Kirchherr, the woman Sutcliff left the Beatles to be with. There are also interviews with Softley and Hart, along with a pair of deleted scenes. The conversation with Kirchherr is interesting, as it’s the only feature where a real person the film is based on discusses Sutcliff. Although I can’t say I thought Backbeat was particularly great, the DVD they put together is pretty good if you’re a fan of the movie.

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