Lost movies about rock stars tend to get as overawed by their heroes as we are. And given a subject like the Beatles, a bit of excess hero worship would seem even more unavoidable than usual. That’s what makes Backbeat such an exhilarating surprise. Directed by Iain Softley, the movie is an ingenious act of imagination, a loving reenactment of the years before the Beatles were stars, when they were just a rough-and-tumble bar band playing hard-rocking cover versions of ”Good Golly, Miss Molly” in the grimy rathskellers of Hamburg, Germany.
It’s 1960, and John Lennon (Ian Hart), a surly kid with an Elvis pompadour, has led his bandmates to where the action is: the clubs along Hamburg’s fabled, sleazy Reeperbahn, where they’re hired to keep the customers awake between strippers by playing the loudest, fiercest rock & roll they can, and by playing it all night long. At this point the Beatles have the raw rock passion that will make them stars without the joyful harmonic intricacy that would make them artists, and BackBeat is powered by its electrifying musical numbers. The soundtrack, performed by an array of musicians from contemporary bands, is just loose enough to conjure the edgy, raucous spirit of a group that was still playing as if it had nothing to lose. There’s anger in this music, and it isn’t hard to see where it comes from: Ian Hart’s John Lennon is the nastiest-and wittiest-punk around.
Hart has played Lennon before, in Chris Munch’s remarkable hour-long film The Hours and Times, and here, once again, his performance is a revelation. He does a dead-on impersonation of Lennon the barbed-wire cutup, one that dares to uncover what John was hiding-his loneliness and sexual insecurity. It helps that Hart looks so much like Lennon. He has the inquisitive eyes, the thin lips that can jut out into a sneer or, just as quickly, rear back into a grin of delight. Hart’s voice, too, is uncanny; he gets the way Lennon’s deadpan Liverpudlian singsong was cut with a gravelly malice. To John, everything but his beloved rock & roll is a pretense, a sham. In his pet phrase, ”It’s all dick!” Yet his nonstop hostile japery is itself a mask.
The core of the movie is the close, jealously charged, sexually ambiguous relationship between John and his best friend from art school, Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), who is also the fifth member of the Beatles-and who, we begin to sense halfway through, is doomed because of a previous freak injury. Stu, a serious painter, isn’t much of a bass player, but John wants him in the band anyway. Stu, however, has other ideas. In Hamburg, he falls for Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee), a chic bohemian photographer who hangs out with an array of avant-garde artists and ”decadent” homosexuals (they’re like the forerunners of Saturday Night Live’s Dieter). A quasi groupie with an eye for stardom, she takes the first publicity shots of the Beatles and gives them their mop-topped haircuts. John, like Stu, has a crush on Astrid, but she represents the fashionable demimonde he rejects-and, on another level, covets. When she brings the Beatles to a posh club, John throws a tantrum, burning through everyone’s pretenses like a blowtorch; then Stu stops him cold, claiming the reason John is furious is that he doesn’t think he’s good enough for Astrid. What’s great about the scene is that they’re both right.
Musically, we can see that John’s true comrade is Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell), who shares his talent and ambition, his rock-the-night verve. Yet personally the two are distant-partners rather than friends. Indeed, none of the other Beatles, least of all drummer Pete Best, registers as a major character. Stu is the one John loves, like a brother and maybe more. The American actor Stephen Dorff plays Stu with the look of a sexy cat. He gives a quiet, almost implosive performance that grows in emotion as the movie goes on. As Stu’s involvement with Astrid deepens, his ties to the band diminish. Yet the paradox is that his disinterest is what ultimately gives birth to the Beatles. The tension between John, the primal truth-telling rocker, and Stu and Astrid, the serene art-world aristocrats, heralds the face-off between the upcoming rock-rebellion culture and the bourgeois complacency it will try to overthrow.
BackBeat may sound like a novelty, a footnote to rock history’s grandest chapter, but its deeply personalized portrait of the Beatles’ early days is as thrilling as it is original: an essential puzzle piece you never knew was missing. It’s a measure of Softley’s savvy as a director that a movie made with this much love for the Beatles doesn’t include a single song that they actually wrote. Yet when the group finally takes the stage and launches into the ascending ”ahhhs” of ”Twist and Shout,” it has the effect of a pop-culture nova: For the first time, their energy is united with beauty, and a revolution is born. It’s a moment to give anyone who was ever a teenager a shudder. A