Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 12, 2019)
Ever since the band became famous, folks have argued over who deserved the title of “The Fifth Beatle”. Radio DJ Murray the K popularized the concept and touted himself in the role, but if anyone deserves the claim, it’s probably Stuart Sutcliffe.
The band’s original bass player, he’s the only member to actually quit the Beatles. Drummer Pete Best occasionally gets counted for the “Fifth Beatle” moniker, but he was fired and replaced with Ringo Starr.
Undoubtedly Sutcliffe would have been booted from the band as they rose to prominence due to his limitations as a musician, but he decided to pursue his artistic talents instead. Sutcliffe’s story stands at the core of 1993’s Backbeat, a look at his tale as well as that of the early Beatles.
Backbeat starts in Liverpool circa 1960 and immediately sets up the close friendship between Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) and John Lennon (Ian Hart). Sutcliffe paints but gets nudged into music by Lennon, and Stu winds up as the bass player in Lennon’s band. That pair and fellow Beatles Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell), George Harrison (Chris O’Neill) and Pete Best (Scot Williams) head to Hamburg to ply their trade in the local clubs.
The band takes up residency at the Kaiser Keller, where they work long hours but enjoy perks like close relations with the strippers. Eventually they meet local artist Klaus Vorrmann (Kai Wiesinger), and he introduces them to photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee).
She and Stu immediately fall for each other, which provokes jealousy from the possessive Lennon. Nonetheless, she photographs the band, and she and Sutcliffe develop a close relationship.
Tensions develop between McCartney and Lennon over Sutcliffe’s lack of musical talent. Paul thinks Stu’s holding them back, but Lennon’s loyalty forces him to stand up for his pal.
However, Sutcliffe’s infatuation with Astrid leads him to stray from the band, and issues come to a head when they get a chance to record for Polydor Records. The movie follows their divergent paths and also problems that develop when Sutcliffe gets seriously ill.
The main problem with Beatle-related films is that so many of us already know so much about the topic. How do you provide a fresh take on a topic that’s been obsessively dissected for more than 50 years? It’s not easy, and for fans, we wonder what we can get from this sort of project.
In my opinion, not much. As with The Two of Us - a fictionalized account of some time Lennon and McCartney spent together in the mid-Seventies - Backbeat wants to get us inside the minds and lives of these exceedingly well-known people. As with Two of Us, it stays with surface notions of the characters and never digs into them deeply.
The thin characterizations remain the biggest flaw of the movie. Sutcliffe stands as the main participant, I suppose, though we see a lot of Lennon as well.
The movie uses the easy concept of John and concentrates almost solely on his bitterness. Lennon’s one Angry Young Man, which leaves little room for charm or magnetism. It becomes tough to figure out why anyone puts up with his nonsense, as he’s consistently cruel and nasty.
At least this gives his some form of personality, which is more than I can say for Dorff’s take on Sutcliffe. Since he died before the Beatles became big, Stu never stood in the public eye.
The movie could have provided insight into this influential cohort but instead, Sutcliffe becomes a virtual non-entity. Stu offers almost a blank slate, as he shows no character and is totally forgettable.
Similar thoughts greet Lee’s take on Kirchherr. The real Astrid cooperated in the production, and that’s easy to tell since it treats her in such a uniformly positive light.
She’s viewed as wonderful, sophisticated and always helpful as she opens up a new world to Stu. Kirchherr becomes little more than a pretty symbol and never threatens to turn into a real character.
With less screentime, the other Beatles get even worse exposition, so they’re presented as thin caricatures. Paul just cares about getting ahead, and he’s portrayed as self-absorbed and manipulative.
George comes across as a timid mama’s boy, while Pete Best is a vaguely surly non-entity. As usual, Paul is the one who gets the worst treatment, for the movie makes him look like a preening jerk.
Like many Beatle-related projects, Backbeat also minimizes the influence of any member other than John. Paul, George and Pete essentially function as Lennon’s flunkies.
John runs the show and the others seem to have little influence or impact on things. I hate this one-sided take on the situation, as it’s a myth that’s developed over the years, and it has no place here.
At least most of the actors pull off their accents fairly well, though Dorff struggles with his and never manages it in a convincing way. Of course, it doesn’t help that we have to contrast Dorff with real Liverpudlian Hart, so it’s no surprise his Lennon sounds believable since he’s the real deal.
That brings up one major issue in Backbeat: suspending disbelief. Whenever an actor plays a really famous personality, their work needs to balance mimicry and interpretation. We don’t want to see the actors just blindly impersonate the inspirations, but they need to create the illusion to make us buy them in the part.
The more famous the person in question, the more delicate a balance this becomes. That’s not a problem for Dorff or Lee, but all the guys who play the Beatles run into that problem. Because they stick with the one-dimensional elements of the characters, we generally accept them during the dramatic scenes.
The concerns come from the music. As director Iain Softley states during the commentary, the movie uses a “grunge supergroup” and their work doesn’t attempt to mimic the Beatles’ sound. They tried for the spirit instead, and that’s not a bad idea.
However, it just doesn’t work. Again, because so many of us are so familiar with the voices of the singers, it becomes a distraction when the provided singing doesn’t match our concepts.
None of the performers sounds much like the real thing. This takes us out of the moment and makes it hard for us to accept the performers as the Beatles.
In addition, the bass playing is far too competent. Through the movie, we constantly are told of Sutcliffe’s inadequacy as a bassist, but you won’t get that impression from the recorded material.
Occasionally we hear intentional goofs, mostly when Stu gets ill and can’t function. Otherwise, his work sounds perfectly fine. That means that the scenes in which Paul and John fight over Sutcliffe’s place in the band make little sense.
In addition to the lack of depth accorded the characters, Backbeat suffers from other issues. For one, it lacks a consistent focus, as it never quite decides if it wants to concentrate on the Beatles’ early days or if it wants to deal with the life and love of Sutcliffe.
The latter subject gets most of the screentime, but it never quite takes firm prominence. We find just enough of the Beatles’ story to intrigue us, but instead, sappy melodrama connected to Stu and Astrid is the main focus.
And that’s why Backbeat is a turgid drag. Clearly there’s a great story here, as the Beatles’ time in Hamburg was pivotal in their development.
Unfortunately, the film prefers to go the melodramatic route as it shows the conflicts of its one-dimensional characters. It feels more like a TV movie than anything else.
Footnote: don’t expect any real Beatle music here, though that’s appropriate, since the program focuses on the period in which they mostly played covers. Backbeat does use songs the band commonly performed, and even though the majority of the numbers come from re-recordings, we do hear the real Beatles at one point. The scene in the studio with Tony Sheridan uses the actual recording.