All reviews were originally written for The Columbus Guardian weekly newspaper between 1992 and 1994 and DreamWatch Magazine 1995 to 1997. All copyrights owned by the author.
Monday, October 6, 2008
What a sense of deja vu — within a few weeks, Richard Nixon, the Beatles and Vietnam were all hot topics in the news. It felt like the '60s all over again. It wasn't really, of course. Nixon died; Vietnam is suffering a corporate, not military, takeover; and the Beatles are causing a stir courtesy of a new movie, Backbeat, about the Fab Four's early days.
Backbeat is a retelling of the Liverpool mop-tops' first tottering steps toward success. Set during the pre-Ringo days of 1960, the Fab Four are still the young and relatively inexperienced Fab Five, with Pete Best on drums and Stuart Sutcliffe playing bass. The boys should be experiencing their high-energy salad days in Hamburg, but Backbeat is packed with a 20/20 sense of hindsight that baths the film in the stark light of revisionism and deja vu.
Backbeat focuses primarily on Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorrf), a working-class abstract painter and part-time rocker who bailed out of the group just before it began riding its first wave of fame. According to the movie, he's only hanging out with the boys because of his friendship with John Lennon (Ian Hart). John is portrayed as the sole creator of the Beatles (sorry, Paul), and Stu is presented as John's main source of inspiration. That's why the dynamics between the two turns sour when Stu falls in love with German avant-garde photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee delivering a halfway decent performance, for a change). Before you can even mutter the name Yoko Ono, Stu goes artsy and begins ignoring the rock scene.
Lennon gets angry at this, but then, in Backbeat, he always appears angry. In fact, Lennon is presented as a remarkably charmless young punker whose anti-intellectualism is, suggestively, a cover for his confusion about his sexual orientation. Lennon keeps yelling that "Everything is about dicks," then looks wistfully at Stu. Stu, meanwhile, is beginning to discover Hamburg's artistic and sexual underground. He also discovers amphetamines, which he starts popping in order to make it through a variety of hard days' nights.
Meanwhile, Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell) is busy agitating for Stu's dismissal from the band. But since Paul and John barely get along (except when performing), Paul spends most of his time stewing (he probably senses that Yoko is only a few years away). George Harrison (Chris O'Neill) and Pete Best (Scot Williams), on the other hand, just keep quiet about the situation. Ringo makes his entrance when he's found passed out in one of the band's bunks.
The movie's weak spots are its characterizations (everyone is too simplistic) and its strained effort to make many obvious (and a few debatable) points. Where Backbeat works best is on stage. It does a great job of , recreating the sound and rocking vitality of the early Beatles.
It does have a beat, and once upon a time, it was the one many of us were dancing to.