Five movies explore the Beatles story on home video. Does the seminal pop group of the '60s still matter in the '90s? Is there a single movie that successfully dramatizes their legend? Could it be ''BackBeat''? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

By Ty Burr
September 30, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Five movies explore the Beatles story on home video

In 1966, John Lennon told an interviewer that the Beatles were bigger than Jesus, and record albums burned until he took it back. He wasn’t far wrong, of course. The Fab Four’s impact on Western culture had all the trappings of a religious revival, from the teenage girls speaking in tongues at Kennedy Airport to twisted acolytes like Charlie Manson. The Beatles were the closest we had to domestic gods in the ’60s: They were physically remote yet their influence was everywhere — on the airwaves, in the hairlines, in the sense of a generation reinventing itself at faster speeds than anyone dared hope.

As with tales of all deities, the story needs to be told and retold to stay valid within the culture. So where your average rock legend is lucky to get one biopic — say, The Buddy Holly Story or What’s Love Got to Do With It — the Beatles myth keeps being repolished for new audiences. The latest telling is Backbeat (1994, PolyGram, R, priced for rental), a gloriously aggressive look at the months in 1960 when the Fab Five played dives in Hamburg, Germany, and slowly began to comprehend their power.

Yes, the Fab Five; for this was the pre-Ringo era, when Pete Best was drummer and an art-student pal of Lennon’s named Stu Sutcliffe played bass. Fueled by speed, sex, and raw American R&B, the group barreled through all-night gigs in which they so completely mastered early rock that they were eventually forced to build on it (the film’s R&B numbers, recorded by a cast of alternative-rock stalwarts, are superbly intense). By then, Stu was out of the band, having fallen for a German photographer named Astrid Kirchherr and returned to his first love, painting. So BackBeat tells two stories: the kinda-drippy romance of Stu (Stephen Dorff) and Astrid (Twin Peaks‘ Sheryl Lee) and the much more compelling drama of whether young John Lennon (the amazing Ian Hart) will reconcile his lust for stardom, his love of rock, and his loyalty toward his best and coolest friend. The lovebirds get more screen time, but director Iain Softley treats Lennon as BackBeat‘s ragged, angry heart.

You may have noticed there’s a name missing here. As played by lookalike Gary Bakewell, Paul McCartney is a small but pointedly professional presence in BackBeat: the future waiting in the wings until John can get over his infatuation with Stu. Other films about the Beatles have similarly downplayed the Cute One, in large part because — the Abbey Road cover notwithstanding — Paul is alive; it’s easier to mythologize the dead. Especially when they’re martyrs of rock history: Sutcliffe died of a brain hemorrhage in 1962, and we all know what happened to Lennon.

Besides, John has always cut the more dramatic figure, especially as played with edgy, withering cynicism by Hart in both BackBeat and in 1992’s hour-long drama, The Hours and Times (1992, Fox Lorber, unrated, $19.98). Directed in plangent black and white by Christopher Munch, Hours speculates on the relationship between Lennon and another man now conveniently dead — Beatle manager Brian Epstein (David Angus) — during a Barcelona vacation the two took in early 1963. Here, Epstein is discreetly gay and deeply unhappy; Lennon is wigged out by incipient fame, and Epstein’s sexuality represents a dare John can’t decide whether to take. It’s not really a rock film — Bach’s Goldberg Variations is the primary musical motif — yet Hart uncannily nails the way Lennon was drawn to Art yet repelled by phonies.

Beatles films that don’t star the Beatles aren’t always so subtle. If you scour the back bins of the video store, you may find John & Yoko: A Love Story (1985, SVS, unrated, for rental only), a TV movie that stars Mark McGann (game but ultimately hapless) as John, and Kim Miyori (quite good, actually) as Yoko. John & Yoko suffers from as-told-to-itis (from bed-ins to ”Imagine” to May Pang, everything is given blandly equal weight), but it’s not a disgrace. Somewhat shockingly, though, the other three Beatles remain ciphers. Only George (Peter Capaldi) is drawn with any detail, and he comes off as a nearly psychotic churl.

All of these movies are preferable to Beatlemania: The Movie (1981, USA, PG, for rental only), the film version of the long-running touring show (”Not the Beatles, but an incredible simulation” — remember?). If the encyclopedic documentary The Compleat Beatles is the bible for this group, then I guess Beatlemania must be The Satanic Verses: It puts four imposters in bad wigs on stage and matches Beatles classics with headbangingly ill-conceived film clips (civil rights footage to ”If I Fell,” for instance). Since the aim is nostalgia at its most toothless, the more confrontational songs associated with John (”played” by David Leon) take a distant backseat to the peppy craftsmanship of Paul (Mitch Weissman). In short, a more profound misunderstanding of this music and these musicians you will never see.

Then there’s the reverent approach, as evinced by I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978, Warner, PG, $19.98). A genial slapstick comedy about the furor surrounding the Beatles’ first American visit, this debut film by Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis never actually shows the Fab Four. We do see their shoes when one of the teen heroines (Nancy Allen) hides under a bed in a Plaza hotel suite, but the unspoken joke is that the boys are too godlike to be stared at directly — as though pop divinity had the power to blind unless seen from the balcony of the Ed Sullivan Theater. Sixteen years later, BackBeat‘s gritty specificity finally looks the Beatles in the eye, even if its truths still smack of gospel. BackBeat: B+; The Hours and Times: A-; John & Yoko: C; Beatlemania: F; I Wanna Hold Your Hand: B

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