Finally hitting DVD after a fairly short delay, "Backbeat" is director Iain Softley's entertaining look at the behind-the-scenes workings of the Beatles. The picture starts in the early 60's, with John Lennon (Ian Hart) and Stu Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) getting rowdy in a bar fight. The two friends are members of a band that also include Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell), George Harrison (Chris O'Neill) and Pete Best (Scot Williams). Playing the clubs of Hamburg, the band tries their best to make it big, although some members of the band think that Sutcliffe is the weakest link. However, due to his friendship with Lennon, he manages to stay around for longer than he may otherwise have.
Once Stu falls for photographer Astrid (Sheryl Lee, of "Twin Peaks" fame), he has to make a choice - but is Lennon having feelings for her, as well? It's not too terribly long before the band finds itself climbing towards the top of the charts - going from performing in little dives where they were going on after strippers to huge crowds. The music itself here is actually played by a series of famed rockers, including Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner and Afghan Whig's Greg Dulli doing vocals, as well as Mike Mills from R.E.M. on bass, Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters on drums and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth on guitar.
Although a highlight of the film is certainly the indie "supergroup" brought together to record the tracks (the music sounds outstanding), the performances are also solid. Dorff and Hart offer solid, convincing performances of the conflicted musicians, while the supporting performances are satisfying (although some of the supporting characters get less to do than they should.) The romantic angle with Lee's character maybe shouldn't have been such a focus, as well - it's just not very interesting, despite a decent performance from the actress (maybe because her and Dorff don't have much chemistry?)
Overall, it's not a perfect picture - it tells an interesting story, but doesn't explore it with much depth - but "Backbeat" is fun and energetic, a zippy, lively portrait of the early days of the Beatles.
VIDEO: Universal presents "Backbeat" in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Mostly, this is a really lovely effort from the studio, as - at best - the image quality was fantastic. Sharpness and detail slip in a few of the darker scenes, but the brighter scenes look very pleasingly crisp and clear, with very good small object detail and a "film-like" appearance.
The picture does show a little bit of edge enhancement and some slight grain (although the grain may have been an element of the photography), but aside from that, the image seemed essentially flawless. The print was in tip-top condition, with no noticable specks, marks or dirt. The film's natural color palette was nicely rendered, with solid saturation and no smearing.
SOUND: "Backbeat" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 by Universal. This is mostly a dialogue-driven feature, with some nice spread of ambient sounds across the front speakers in most scenes. However, during the musical performances, the sound mix really comes to life, with stellar reinforcement of the tunes by the rear speakers. The music sounds masterfully recorded, with every note coming through crystal clear. Audio quality is excellent, as the music sounds dynamic and rich, with nice bass and detail. Dialogue remained crisp and easily understood throughout.
EXTRAS: The disc comes in a slipcase, with the inner cover art nicely done. Overall, from the outside, it's a nice looking package. However, the menus are static and pretty ordinary. The supplemental features are pretty good, providing some insight. The first piece is a 7-minute conversation with the real Astrid Kirchherr, who shares her view of the story. Three minutes of fairly rugged-looking deleted scenes are presented, as is a nearly 30-minute interview with director Iain Softley, done for the Sundance Channel and a 10-minute interview with Softley and actor Hart. There's also casting tapes from the actors, a promotional featurette, an essay from the director and a photo gallery. Finally, there's a commentary from director Iain Softley and actors Stephen Dorff and Ian Hart. Dorff talks about being introduced to a culture that wasn't familiar to him, while Hart talks about working with the other actors and constructing his performance. Softley talks about the research done during production and how he tried to present the story. There's some considerable spots of silence here-and-there throughout this track, but the discussion was involving and enjoyable when the participants did chime in.
All of these features appear to have been ported over from a prior (I haven't seen the prior release myself - and didn't even know one existed, it must have hardly been out for very long) Region 1 release that has since gone out-of-print.
Final Thoughts: "Backbeat" maybe could have found more detail to the characters and not put so much weight on the romantic angle, but it's an entertaining picture that is fast-paced, well-acted and entertaining. Universal's DVD edition is an enjoyable special edition, with very good audio/video quality and solid supplements. Recommended.