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BACKBEAT
Collector's Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Stephen Dorff, Ian Hart, Sheryl Lee
Director:  Iain Softley
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Universal
Features:  See Review
Length:  140 Minutes
Release Date:  January 25, 2005

"There goes Stuart Sutcliffe...he could have been in The Beatles."

Film ***

I remember when I first saw the trailer for Backbeat and how immediately excited I got about it.  "They've made a movie about The Beatles in Hamburg, with Stu Sutcliffe!" I exclaimed to the girl sitting next to me.  And then I had to explain who Stu Sutcliffe was.

Being a long time die hard Beatles fan, my friends and I knew Sutclffe's name pretty much as well as those of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr.  More casual fans probably also could identify Pete Best.  But Stuart Sutcliffe wasn't as readily known.

For the unfamiliar, Backbeat is an entertaining gem of a film that will fill you in on a piece of pop music history.  Stu Sutcliffe (Dorff) was a promising art school mate and best friend of John Lennon (Hart).  Because of his friendship for John, he agreed to use the money he won in a painting contest to buy a bass.  And before long he and John, along with George, Paul and Pete, were on their way to Hamburg.  The year was 1961.

Hamburg was a grueling and eye-opening experience for the lads from Liverpool.  They lived in tight, grungy quarters.  They played long sets night after night, frequently sharing the stage with strippers and other sex show oddities.  They got better and tighter as a band.  And Stu Sutcliffe met Astrid (Lee) and began a new course in his life.

Stu was a talented painter, but, as he would admit frequently, not much of a musician.  His lack of talent and dwindling interest made him a liability to the band, even though his friend John stuck stalwartly by him.  By the time the lads returned for their second stint in Hamburg, Stu would be on his way to marrying his new German sweetheart, enrolling in a prestigious art college, and dropping out of the group.

At the beginning of the film, we see John and Stu beaten by a bunch of thugs in a dark alley.  A kick to the head would cause Stu terrible and frequent headaches for the rest of his life.  And tragically, the night before The Beatles returned to Hamburg for the third time, and the first time as a quartet, Stu died of a brain hemorrhage. 

That's the true story this film tells, with plenty of accuracy and only a few minor embellishments...much fewer than most pictures based on fact would take.  As co-written and directed by Iain Softley, the heart of this story is the friendship between John and Stu.  It was a friendship that helped forage the greatest rock and roll band in history before one went on to become a legend and the other quietly bowed out and left not only the music scene, but the world as well.

The cast is terrific, starting with the two male leads.  Ian Hart had portrayed John Lennon once before in the solid independent film The Hours and Times.  Here, he gets to kick up his heels more with plenty of stage time and a wider range of emotions to pour through.  He is thoroughly excellent...sometimes watching him is like seeing a ghost come back to life.

Stephen Dorff is also superb as Stuart Sutcliffe, looking eerily like the late painter and bass player and countering Hart for some of the picture's most dynamic scenes.

The music is possibly the real star, with a supergroup of alternative artists recreating the raw, savage sound of The Beatles in their Hamburg days.  The actors all look reasonably like they're actually playing their instruments, which is always a key point with me.  According to the commentary, they learned the songs well enough to actually play them for the movie's wrap party!

It's not a perfect film...there are a few slow stretches here and there.  To be honest, my attention sometimes drifts when the focus is on Stu and Astrid rather than Stu and John or the whole band., even though Astrid WAS responsible for influencing the early image of The Beatles with her photographs and introducing them to the mop-top hair styles.  But the visualization of a legendary band in their most formative years remains a vital and energizing treat for me.

I can't say how much non-Beatles fans might care for this movie, but being that I don't think a whole lot of them exist, this is probably one I can recommend with minimal reservation. 

Video ***1/2

This anamorphic transfer from Universal boasts terrific coloring and a noticeable improvement over the original DVD release.  The tones are rich, vibrant and natural, and most of the film is an unqualified treat to look at.  High marks overall.

Audio ****

Now THIS is how this music was supposed to sound...raw, loud, and all over your living room!  The new 5.1 remix is a treat, not only for bringing out the life in these classic rock songs, but for a better overall presentation that seems more ambient and clear, with the rear stage opening up the crowd scenes more and the .1 giving the tunes the extra kick.  Spoken words sound great, and dynamic range is strong.

Features ***

The disc mentions Iain Softley's commentary, but it fails to mention that both Ian Hart and Stephen Dorff are also included (Dorff edited in).  It's not one of the better commentaries...for starters, it's frequently sparse for good sized gaps.  There were moments when I forgot the thing was even on, and when they started talking, it startled me!

There are also some deleted scenes, interviews with Messrs. Softley and Hart, a short featurette, director's essay, casting sessions and a stills gallery.  There is an audio interview with Astrid Kirchherr that includes as visuals some of her photos and some of Stu's paintings, plus a new half-hour interview with Iain Softley for The Sundance Channel.  Missing is the original trailer...too bad; it was a good one.

Summary:

Five men, four legends, two friends, one band.  Backbeat works because it captures the essence of a soon-to-be pop phenomenon in their pre-Fab days, as well as bring to life a part of the story many might not have been familiar with.

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