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UK/Germany 1994
Directed by
Iain Softley
100 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2.5 stars


With Backbeat director Iain Softley makes a serviceable enough job of portraying an early chapter in the Beatles' story. Given that it’s a story that has already been told many times, that in itself is no small achievement. Good casting and strong performances from the leads, Ian Hart as John Lennon and Stephen Dorff as Stuart Sutcliffe, as well as an effective production design and a goodly assortment of early rock ‘n’roll classics make for an entertaining package. Just don’t set too high a bar for it as a Beatles biopic.

The film opens with the Beatles fully-formed and setting off for the port of Hamburg to take up an engagement playing in that city’s red light district. At this stage the band, a not-so-fab five, was Lennon (Hart). McCartney (Gary Bakewell), Harrison (Chris O’Neill), Pete Best (Scot Williams) on drums and Lennon’s art-school buddy Stuart Sutcliffe (Dorff) on bass.

Softley has no interest in explaining where the band came from (aside from a scene with a skiffle group playing on the street) nor where they were going (there are no Beatles-penned songs. Instead, throughout the film the band (miming to studio musicians and singers) play red-hot covers of rock’n’roll standards from the likes of Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Rather Softley concentrates on Lennon and Sutcliffe and their relationships to each other and Astrid Kirchherr, a young German photographer (who is credited with giving the Beatles their famous mop-top haircuts), well-played by Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks,1992) with whom Sutcliffe had fallen in love (a triangular dynamic which serves to give the film some lively moments). Sutcliffe wanted to be a painter and despite Lennon’s hectoring couldn’t be bothered to learn to play bass properly or develop the appropriate quotient of stage craft.

All this is done well enough with just the right tone set for the oft-told and rather generic “it’s a long way to the top…” journey of smelly rock’n’rollers to superstardom. With no disrespect meant to Sutcliffe who died in April 1962 of a brain hemorrhage just a few months before 'Love Me Do' initiated the Swingin' Sixties, his talent remains more legendary than evidenced by his painting, of which we see three examples.

Ironically Sutcliffe is only remembered today because of the unforseeable phenomenon that the Beatles, and more specifically, Lennon and McCartney, became and would not have had if he had stayed in the band, something which casts a lingering shadow over the origins of The Fab Four.

FYI: Apparently Lennon, who it seems to be common knowledge had anger issues and was a bit of a bully, suspected that he might have been responsible for the injury which ultimately led to Sutcliffe's death but Softley does not pursue the matter.

If you're interested in the earliest days of Lennon in particular see Nowhere Boy (2009)




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