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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Backbeat: Special Edition
Backbeat: Special Edition
Universal // R // January 25, 2005
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Matthew Millheiser | posted April 19, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie

Long before Ringo Starr was a Fab Four fixture, or before Love Me Do became their first hit single... before the John Lennon proclaimed that the band was more popular than Jesus, or before they were hanging out with the Maharishi... before their Magical Mystery Tour debacle of a film and the eclectic genius of the "White Album"... the Beatles shined with Stu Sutcliffe, the band's original bass player and art-school buddy of John Lennon. Stu traveled with the Beatles to Hamburg as the scrappy young quintet (featuring Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison, each on vocals/guitar, Sutclife on bass, and Pete Best on drums) cut their rock-and-roll teeth in the legendary Cavern club, opening for burlesque shows, popping uppers like pez, and sleeping with fans with wanton rock abandon. Sutcliffe, a talented artist whose bass-playing abilities were marginal at best, really found his passion in the art world. A pretty boy with a James Dean-esque demeanor, he became more enamored of theHamburg art scene and his burgeoning relationship with local painter and photographer Astrid Kirschherr. Stu eventually left the band (with McCartney taking over bass duties) and moved in with Astrid as the Beatles returned to Liverpool. On April 10, 1962, Stu Sutcliffe collapsed from a brain hemorrhage in Astrid's apartment and died in her arms. The Beatles arrived the very next day to start another Hamburg tour.

Beatlemaniacs worldwide are intimately familiar with the tragic stories of Stu and John as well as Stu and Astrid, for both are intrinsically linked together. This triangle sets the scene for Backbeat, director's Iain Softley's affectionate and beautifully-staged drama chronicling the conflict between Sutcliffe, Lennon, and Kirschherr amidst the genesis of what would become the world's greatest pop band.

Visually, the film itself is quite a wonder. Softley assembled a group of actors who seem to capture the essence of the Beatles while not being quite picture perfect. Ian Hart's John Lennon is overflowing with the acerbic wit, capricious hurtfulness, and self-righteous indignation that became pop-culture earmarks of the "witty" Beatle (Hart had also played John Lennon in 1991's The Hours and Times, a fictional recount of a may-have-been relationship between Lennon and Beatles manager Brian Epstein.) Stephen Dorff was equally impressive as Sutcliffe; he certainly looked the part, but he imbued his character with sensitivity and charisma. Sheryl Lee's performance as Astrid completes the triangle with probably the best performance of the three, radiating beauty and softness tempered with iron and gentle austerity.

The rest of the cast is mostly comprised of supporting roles. In the case of the Beatles bandmates, Gary Bakewell as Paul McCartney and Chris O'Neill as George Harrison look and sound just enough like their roles to be effective, but they are minor personalities at best. Scot Williams's performance as Pete Best is, like a good rock drummer, sturdy, solid, and steady. But then again, how many people could really spot a grossly inaccurate Pete Best? The visual reproduction of early 60s Hamburg is also pleasing and believable. But where Backbeat loses its step is in its storytelling. Its focus is on the triangle between the three principals. The film implies that Lennon is also in love with Sutcliffe and is jealous of Astrid, but there remains a not-quite-so intangible attraction between Lennon and Astrid. But this stand-off is never presented in a richly delineated or deeply compelling manner. The movie is really concerned with Sutcliffe, but the character lacks the weight to truly anchor the film. Indeed, the only compelling aspect of his story is the fact that he just missed becoming a Beatle, preferring Astrid and his art to rock-and-roll, which is fine and dandy but not especially interesting. More compelling is witnessing the emergence of the Beatles from club rats to pop/rock gods, but that isn't the story, it's the setting. About halfway into the film, Backbeat gradually shifts from a dynamic reenactment of pseudo-rock legend into a perfunctory tale of living fast, burning brightly, dying young, and the ensuing if grossly ponderous immortalization of tragic beauty.

The DVD

The Video

Backbeat is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.851, and has been anamorphically enhanced for your widescreen viewing pleasure. The transfer is fairly decent but flawed. The picture seemed mostly consistent insomuch that it is earmarked by some softness and edge-enhancement. Colors are strong and rich, blacks are sufficiently deep, while the print used to this transfer is very clean. Pixelation and compression noise are blissfully absent here. Overall, this is a flawed but pleasant transfer.

The Audio

The audio is presented in a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack which is mostly situated in the front stage. Dialog is clear and bright, never sounding shrill or hollow. The musical scenes open up considerably, but not quite as enveloping as one might hope. The score sounds bright and solid but with little atmosphere and immersive content. There is little in the way of surround imaging and pinpoint directionality. It's almost as if the soundtrack seemed like a competent 2.0 mix rather than a would-be dynamic 5.1. It's solid, but unremarkable.

The Extras

The extras start out with a seven-minute featurette entitled A Conversation with Astrid Kirchherr, which is really an audio interview featuring Ms. Kirchherr playing over clips of the film and a few photographs. It's a short piece, but it's moderately entertaining to hear from Kirchherr as she offers her thoughts on the film and her relationships with Stu and John. We then move on to two fairly pointless deleted scenes which are in shaky condition and were judiciously cut from the film. Coming up next are a pair of interviews: Iain Softley Interview for The Sundance Channel and Interview with Iain Softley and Ian Hart. Both have a combined running time of 40-minutes and provide some informative background information about the film's genesis and production, as well as some tidbits about how the surviving Beatles (as well as John's family) reacted to the film.

There is a feature-length audio commentary featuring director Iain Softley and stars Ian Hart and Stephen Dorff (although the menu suggests that only Softley has participated on the track). The track is low-key, a little dry, and suffers from a few dead spots, but it remains a generally interesting listen. Rounding out the supplements are a cheesy EPK-like TV featurette, some audition footage, a director's essay, and a photo gallery.

Final Thoughts

I'm a raving Beatlemaniac, but I had a lot of problems with Backbeat. Many parts of the film were positively thrilling and compelling, but the bulk of the movie was weighted down in pointless, often pretentious melodrama. For a great Beatles film, rent A Hard Day's Night or even The Rutles. I don't think Backbeat is a bad film, but it lacks the kind of dramatic weight to really make it compelling or memorable to anyone outside of the fiercest Beatle fan, and even then it's a mixed bag.

The DVD itself is also quite mixed. While the extras are informative and entertaining – often more so than the film itself – the presentation is only adequate at best. I would definitely give Backbeat a rental first to see if it's your cup of yellow matter custard.

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