Backbeat: Before The Beatles Got Big

Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell), George Harrison (Chris O'Neill), Pete Best (Scot Williams), John Lennon (Ian Hart), and Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) perform as The Beatles at the Kaiserkeller in Backbeat.

Backbeat is set in the early years of The Beatles’ performing career while mostly focusing on the time spent in Hamburg.

Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) would need to leave the band in order for the Beatles to really become the greatest rock band in history.  Sutcliffe would not be the last to leave the group.  No, that honor belongs to Pete Best (Scot Williams).  Best would leave by the end of 1960, having been replaced by Ringo Starr (Paul Duckworth).  Yet for a small time in history, Sutcliffe would play bass for The Beatles in 1960.

While John Lennon (Ian Hart) and Sutcliffe were friends dating back to art school, things would eventually change in Hamburg.  Performing at the Kaiserceller brought about awful living and eating conditions.  If you’re familiar with The Beatles, we’re talking some very long days.  Sometimes, they would have to play sets for eight hours!  Anyway, it’s during this time that Sutcliffe would meet girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee).  This would force a decision for Sutcliffe over the months to come.  Does he stay with Astrid or quit The Beatles?  Sutcliffe was not the best bass player in the word.  Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell) would take over the instrument when Sutcliffe made his decision to stay with Astrid.

What is so extremely fascinating about this cast is that many would portray these icons at another point in their career.  Funny enough, Ian Hart had just come off of portraying John Lennon during The Hours and Times.  Gary Blakewell and Scot Williams would later reprise their roles as Paul McCartney and Pete Best, respectively.  But enough about that, let’s take a look at other things about this film.

While actors only portray the band, Greg Dulli and Dave Pirner provide vocals on the music.  Other notable musicians–including Dave Grohl–form the Backbeat band and they do their best to replicate The Beatles’ energy in the film.  They do give the music somewhat of a punk feel.  Nothing wrong here because it is authentic to the era so to speak.  Outside of an original recording of “My Bonnie” with Tony Sheridan, there are no Lennon/McCartney tunes.  What we get are many other cover songs during the Hamburg performances.  Some of these tunes would later find their way onto the early Beatles albums if not wait until The Beatles Anthology.  Of all the songs, the one that’s most troublesome is the fact that John Lennon performs “Long Tall Sally.”  This tune has always been sung by Paul McCartney in the history of The Beatles!

There is the potential for a good story here.  It is something of interest to Beatlemaniacs, myself included.  What we do know is that history would remember Stuart Sutcliffe for being the fifth Beatle and for his collection of paintings.  We’ll never be able to truly know what could have been because he died of a brain hemorrhage in 1962.  When we have a comprehensive documentary available in the form of The Beatles Anthology, films like Backbeat end up serving as a moot point.  That being said, Backbeat does manage to offer some insight into the relationship between Sutcliffe, Kirchherr, and Lennon.  It isn’t much but it is something.

DIRECTOR:  Iain Softley
SCREENWRITERS:  Iain Softley, Michael Thomas and Stephen Ward
CAST:  Sheryl Lee, Stephen Dorff, and Ian Hart

Backbeat opened in theaters on April 15, 1994. The film is available on Blu-ray. Grade: 3/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.