Beatles' future haunts their past in 'Backbeat'

April 22, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

In "Backbeat," the Beatles discover that life is a cabaret, old chum.

The movie, set largely in Hamburg in 1961, when they were just another scrubby bar band, chronicles the twisted relationship between John Lennon (played by Ian Hart, who also played him in "The Hours and Times") and legendary "fifth Beatle" Stu Sutcliffe.

Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) is represented as some kind of avatar of artistic liberation whose charisma uniquely mesmerized Lennon, though the other band members -- George, Paul and Pete (no Ringo yet) -- didn't quite see it that way. It irked them, for one thing, that Stu didn't really know how to play.

The movie has trouble getting beyond the winking stage and is always letting you know that these are the soon-to-be famous Beatles. A constant irritation is the way in which the titles to Beatle songs keep popping up in conversation -- "I've worked a hard day's night," or "We're working eight days a week." This is presumably offered in compensation for the fact that the corporate entity the Beatles have now become wouldn't give the film company permission to use Beatles tunes. At least John never says to Paul, "I want to hold your hand."

But maybe he wanted to hold Stu's hand. As did "The Hours and Times," the movie zeros in on John's curious range of needs and implies that Stu was more to John than mere idol, while remaining short of being a lover. One thinks of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady or possibly T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound as other examples of intense, luminous male friendships that somehow inspired one of the members to a higher standard of artistic expression.

Yet what's driving John isn't just artistic. He watches as the beautiful Stu is slowly drawn from music and the pleasures of rocking and rolling into a more vivid world of artistic freedom, as personified by a beautiful photographer named Astrid Kirchherr. His reaction is clear sexual jealousy.

Indeed, that's the part of the film that seems to emit the vapors from the great musical "Cabaret," derived in turn from the Isherwood stories, about a young Englishman in debauched Weimar Republic Berlin who is drawn both to a woman and a man and has trouble sorting out his feelings. Hart is terrific at suggesting Lennon's complexity. We see a young genius soaring with his own sense of power (he's the first to see how good the Beatles are getting), who is burning with ambition and hope, but at the same time cannot put aside his fascination with his gifted friend even as he knows it's wrenching the group apart.

To a lesser extent, the movie evokes Paul's disenchantment with Stu, who really is a painter rather than a musician, an indifferent bass player and too "cool" behind his Roy Orbison shades to deliver the infectious enthusiasm that so crackled out of the band's early days. But while Gary Bakewell is as dead a ringer for Paul as Hart is for John, Paul is never really important to the story, which focuses on the subtle currents of yearning that pass between John, Stu and Astrid, played brilliantly by Sheryl Lee.

At one point John warns Stu that he'll always be known as someone who could have been a Beatle, but the movie at least recognizes that for Stu, being Stu had more meaning than being a Beatle.

"Backbeat"

Starring Ian Hart, Stephen Dorff and Sheryl Lee

Directed by Iain Softley

Released by Gramercy

R-rated

** 1/2

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