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 the
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
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 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 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.
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.