Backbeat Iain Softley

Backbeat is a terrific and often overlooked biopic from 1994 about Stuart Sutcliffe, the original bass player for the Beatles, who fell in love with German photographer Astrid Kirchherr while the lads were cutting their teeth in Hamburg and then quit the band on the eve of their success. Writer/director Iain Softley makes a number of excellent choices in this film, but most impressive is his decision to focus our attention solidly on Stuart and the triangular relationship that develops with his new love Astrid and his best friend John, rather than giving in to the obvious temptation to make a movie about the wild young Beatles wreaking havoc on the Reeperbahn. In fact, Softley manages to make the Stuart/Astrid/John triangle so interesting that it almost seems irrelevant that we're watching a Beatles movie: these guys could be any band at all and the story would still hold water. Stephen Dorff and Sheryl Lee turn in solid performances as Stuart and Astrid, but the movie is stolen by Ian Hart's riveting take on John. The actors playing Paul and George offer convincing enough imitations of familiar personalities, but Hart's Lennon manages to do something else entirely. Instead of impersonating superficial mannerisms, Hart digs deep into the character's psychology, with the result being that his John is absolutely believable even if he isn't instantly recognisable. Don Was tries to do something similar with the movie's music, avoiding a slavish recreation of the early Beatles' sound and instead attempts to capture the spirit of the band by letting an indie-rock super-group go to town on the material (Dave Pirner, Greg Dulli, Thurston Moore, Mike Mills, Dave Grohl). This turns out a little bit odd — the bass playing and drumming on the soundtrack are far too good to be Stuart and Pete Best, and it's weird that John loses his thick Liverpudlian accent whenever he sings — but it's an interesting choice all the same. The DVD includes some great extras (interviews with Kirchherr, Softley, and Hart) but quite a dull commentary (Dorff in particular is downright stultifying). And how can it be that there's no featurette on the music? (Universal)