Director Iain Softley didn’t set out to make a film about the Beatles. But in 1983 he saw Astrid Kirchherr’s photos of her former lover, early Beatles bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, and his mind was made up. ”I was looking for a story about characters from different parts of the world who meet and change each other’s lives,” says Softley. The result of his search is BackBeat (which opened April 15), a music-packed drama about the passionate triangle between teenage bandmates John Lennon and Sutcliffe and 22-year-old Kirchherr-and its tragic end: Sutcliffe’s death from a brain hemorrhage in 1962.
With the help of Sutcliffe’s mother, Softley located Kirchherr (now 55, single, and working as an assistant for a Hamburg music publisher) in Germany and began persuading her to talk about her two-year affair with Sutcliffe. But Kirchherr was no fatuous groupie-she proved an invaluable prehistorian of the Fab Four when they were neither fab nor four. Spotting the pompadoured teens, who were covering rock & roll standards in a club in her native Hamburg, Kirchherr says, she immediately recognized their talent and asked the five musicians (who included Pete Best, George Harrison, and Paul McCartney) to pose. Her photos tracked the nascent Beatles as they evolved under the influence of her hip bohemian taste.
Softley took his visual cue from Kirchherr as well, re-creating many of her starkly shadowed, moody images on film, and even drawing details of the band’s costumes from her photo of the group at the Hamburg Fun Fair. ”I wanted the film-like the photographs-to look timeless, not nostalgic,” says Softley, who set the movie to a Don Was-produced soundtrack performed by a grunge supergroup: Nirvana’s Dave Grohl, Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner, Afghan Whigs’ Greg Dulli, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, Gumball’s Don Fleming, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore.
”The images are so alive and relevant, I even showed them to the actors during auditions,” says Softley. ”I knew they would see these people and want to know them. I knew they would fall in love. I don’t think you could feel closer to these people, except by listening to their music.”