Friday, October 15, 2010

Backbeat (1994) — There are places I remember...

Being a longtime devotee of John Lennon and The Beatles, I perked up at seeing this trailer for Nowhere Boy, which opened here in the U.S. last week.

It brings to mind another movie that, if not actually singing the same biographical tune, does harmonize with it like the lad nearby holding the left-handed Gibson Les Paul.

Before they were the band you've known for all these years, the Beatles c. 1960-62 were a rough, rude, and raw quintet who came of age in Liverpool's pubs and, especially, the clubs along Hamburg's seedy tenderloin, the red-light Reeperbahn district.

The dramatis personae in 1994's Backbeat, a remarkably accomplished first film by writer/director Iain Softley, include John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The narrative is hermetically sealed within the seminal time before the Beatles became the Fab Four, from the band's early days barely getting by as inchoate rock-and-roll rebels to just before their pop-chart success preceding the 1964 debut on American television that changed the orbit of the planet.

However, this is not "a Beatles movie." Instead it's an intimate love story that strums the power chords between John Lennon (superb Ian Hart), his best friend Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), and Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee), the lovely German photographer who first captured the Beatles on film and helped shape their image and avant-garde explorations.

At the center of this three-pointed star is the conflict between Stu's fierce friendship with John, both young men's feelings about Astrid and each other, and Stu's passion to be not a rock star but a gifted abstract painter in Hamburg with Astrid.

While balancing that elemental rock-and-roll energy with quiet, romanticized melancholy, Backbeat's pulse lies in its well-crafted meditations on hard choices, the expansive definitions of love, and (when the film is at its most self-conscious) the caprice of destiny.

When broody, James-Deanish Stu travels from Liverpool to Hamburg as the Beatles' bass guitarist, it's more out of loyalty to his old art-school mate John than his musical talent, which he knows isn't as good as John's or Paul's (Gary Bakewell). The Reeperbahn dives are harsh but ideal crucibles for the group, with exhausting gigs as the house-band playing between strippers.

It's while rocking, speeding, and shagging at the Kaiserkeller that Stu catches the eye of Klaus Voormann (Kai Wiesinger) and his girlfriend Astrid, who are taken with the Beatles' sound and with Stu in particular. They invite him into their bohemian world — all Miles Davis, absinthe, French films, black turtlenecks, and Edith Piaf — and it's a lifestyle that suits Stu far better than it appeals to John, who immediately feels that Astrid is stealing his friend away from him.

The power struggles among them, and between John and Paul, heat up after Stu and Astrid become lovers. Their relationship steers Astrid's heart away from Klaus. Meanwhile, Stu's desires and drives elevate away from the band and toward his new lover and art studies.

John's tension and jealousy pulls two ways: not only is his friend drifting away, but, as he says of Astrid, who asks how he will remember her, "I'll say she was the girl I always wanted, the girl of me dreams ... I might have fallen in love with her, but she fell in love with me best friend and that was the end of that." It's a triangle that a lesser film might have portrayed with mawkish soap operatics. Here, though, Backbeat keeps its cool with respect and a welcome gentleness, plus a nod toward the complexities of relationships, especially relationships that involve the ferocious complexities of John Lennon.

Just outside the triangle's border fence, looking in, is John's girlfriend Cynthia Powell (Jennifer Ehle). Prim and sweet, she's almost dowdy in her pastel sweater-set alongside John's rock-and-roll leather and the boho nonconformity of Astrid's world. When the two couples take an overnight beach outing, Cynthia confides in Astrid that all she wants in life are a house and babies and above all John. Yet she's no mere naif as she watches the man she loves drawn into a world that will never really mesh with hers. (Powell became Cynthia Lennon in August 1962, and we know how that ended up.)

Stu is doomed, of course, as a brain hemorrhage, possibly resulting from a bar brawl dramatized early in the film, does its work soon after his 21st and final birthday, before he achieves the success and happiness within his grasp. Beatles historians still try to unpack the profound effect of Stu's death on Lennon, the way it shaped and haunted him to a degree equaled only by the death of John's mother Julia just three years earlier.

Backbeat is not a "biopic" or an attempt at a history lesson. Necessarily reductive, it concertinas time and shoves everyone outside the John-Stu-Astrid trio to the back burners. Beatles purists (such as yours truly) could nitpick Backbeat, missing all the incidental details it gets right and also completely missing the point. Softley cast his movie with actors rather than impersonators, and aimed for an authenticity and "truth" that avoid a Mt. Rushmore approach to his subjects.

As Sutcliffe, Stephen Dorff holds his own even when he doesn't seem entirely comfortable being an American abroad. Ian Hart, a native Liverpudlian, delivers John's acerbic wit with a pitch-perfect Lennon Scouse lilt. He so dynamically inhabits the cynical, incendiary Lennon that every scene he shares threatens to yaw sideways as if by the gravitational field of the real Lennon's history.

Occasionally we feel Backbeat's nostalgia for these people and this time immerse us like a warm bath. (Kirchherr herself was an advisor and the screenplay grew out of Softley's interviews with her.) And it can't resist casting hooks into its characters' future, snagging too-self-aware moments like Lennon's line, "We're gonna be big, Stu...too big for our own bloody good." We wince when someone quotes a lyric that hasn't been written yet. (Stu: "I'm in a band, plays eight days a week.") Sometimes its poignancy boils over into the maudlin.

But you can't miss the affection and sincerity Backbeat carries from start to finish. In painstakingly recreating that place and time, Softley bottles the attitude and energy, the excitement of the new, that were as integral to the Beatles' success as their songs.

That's amped up by how terrific Backbeat looks and sounds. The camerawork is polished and mature for a first film. The soundtrack's music is raw and loud and great, performed by a group that brought together members of Nirvana, R.E.M., Sonic Youth, and other '90s grungers. 'Cuz it's gotta be rock 'n' roll music, mere soundalikes couldn't capture the feverish drive of the Beatles in their Hamburg heyday.

If your own personal Top 40 doesn't already include at least a couple of Beatles albums, you may leave Backbeat with no greater understanding of what the fab fuss was all about. (In this DVD's extras Softley says that early in its development he considered leaving the band's name, and even the characters' surnames, unspoken throughout the film.) But the film's appeal isn't restricted to Beatles fans. And there's a lot to be said for a "rockudrama" that leaves you wondering what might have happened if.

This past February, Iain Softley re-imagined Backbeat as a stage drama, featuring a live band. It premiered at Glasgow's Citizens Theatre. From the looks of the show's website, it was favorably received. I would've loved to have seen it myself.

Universal's 2005 Backbeat: Collector's Edition DVD offers a print and transfer that are as good as they get, with lovely color and richness from cinematography that's even more striking in repeated viewings. The DD 5.1 audio likewise exhibits superb clarity and strength (and a mindfully produced surround range) suitable for both hard rockin' and quiet dialogue.

Extras kick off with a commentary track from director Softley and (uncredited and recorded separately) actors Dorff and Hart. It's your typical harmless reminiscences about the project's development, performance experiences, and "This was a tough scene" chit-chat.

A Conversation with Astrid Kirchherr (7 mins.) comes illustrated by her original photos of the Beatles in Hamburg. A three-minute assemblage of deleted scenes fills time before a good 2002 Sundance Channel interview with Softley (28 mins.), in which the director fills in facts about the film's origins, production history, and casting. Then, a 10-minute interview with Softley and Hart delivers a low-key chat over the now-familiar production history. (Data-point redundancy is the bonus materials' one drag.)

Shot during production, TV Featurette (12 mins.) is a promo short with on-set interviews (and a narrator who sounds suspiciously like George Harrison). Casting Session (6:40) unspools home-movie footage of Dorff, Hart, and others during auditions. Director's Essay chronicles production history in more detail through 18 click-through text frames. And a click-through Photo Gallery holds 19 annotated stills.

Music: The Beatles, Live at the BBC
Near at hand: Ken Scholes' Long Walks, Last Flights