Backbeat DVD: Review By Dodd

  • Feature
  • Extras
  • Replay Value
At this point, it is hard not to recognize The Beatles as the most popular rock group of all time. Coming from Liverpool, England, the foursome launched the British Invasion and took America by storm. Standing with their mop-top haircuts before packs of screaming women, they headlined music charts with pop singles such as "Eight Days A Week" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." Their physical appearance, mannerisms, and songs have never been forgotten.

We remember The Beatles as the group I just described: the squeaky-clean rock boys that performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. Before the group became the established stars that we know today, John, Paul, George, and Ringo were not the same hopeless romantics. In fact, there wasn't even a Ringo. Before fame, The Beatles consisted of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, drummer Pete Best, and bass guitarist Stuart Sutcliffe.

The 1994 rock drama Backbeat tells the story of pre-fame Beatles from the perspective of Stuart Sutcliffe. Trying to get a foot in the door to stardom, the band boards a ferry and travels to Hamburg, Germany to play a few shows. With their hair slicked back like 50's grease monkeys, the boys play covers of rock n' roll hits while indulging in a fair share of lovin with the local German girls.

The rest of the band is not fond of Stuart (Stephen Dorff) with the exception of his best friend John Lennon (Ian Hart). In fact, Stuart has little interest in launching a music career. While passionate about becoming a famous painter, Stuart stays in the band due to Lennon's persistent nagging. It is one night while playing a show in a seedy tavern that Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee) walks into Stuart's life. Astrid is a photographer living the beatnik lifestyle in Hamburg, and it is this that peaks Stuart's interest. Stuart falls in love with Astrid and her artistic routine, and is faced with a choice between art and music.

Backbeat is a semi-biographical look at the The Beatles' stint in Germany, but it is primarily about the love triangle between Stuart Sutcliffe, John Lennon, and Astrid Kirchherr. The film implies that Lennon had a love for Sutcliffe; a love that wanted Sutcliffe to stay in the band despite his mediocre bass guitar playing and wretched singing voice. There is also a subtle hint that Lennon harbored feelings for Astrid as well. However, the main focus falls on the erotic relationship between Sutcliffe and Astrid, and their integration of romance and art. Of course I mean this literally in reference to a love scene between the two characters when they make whoopee while covered in canvas paint.

The romantic triangle aspect is well done. In fact, it makes us sometimes forget we are watching a film about The Beatles. However, when focusing on the musical facet of the storyline, I found Backbeat to be especially entertaining. There are even implications that the romance between Sutcliffe and Astrid influenced the band's image. One major example is Astrid introducing the beatnik, mop-top hairstyle into the band, which later inspires them to shed their bad boy images.

On top of being a stylishly directed drama from Iain Softley (K-Pax) with a well-written script and a smashing performance by the underrated Stephen Dorff, Backbeat also gains points thanks to its music. With contributions by Dave Grohl from the Foo Fighters and Dave Pirner from Soul Asylum, this movie rocks to its fullest potential.

A Conversation with Astrid Kirchherr

Still alive and well, Kirchherr describes her experiences with The Beatles, the beatnik movement, and art. Kirchherr speaks in voiceover to a montage of film footage, photography, and art. The conversation piece is brief, and not as interesting as I expected it to be, but the display of Kircherr's influential photography of the band is quite fulfilling.

Deleted Scenes

These are just a couple of deleted scenes from the movie. The first scene is a conversation piece between Stuart and Astrid, while the second scene shows the lovers getting dressed so they can afterwards strip each other naked for some hot loving. Like a lot of deleted scenes, these are pretty insignificant.

Iain Softley Interview for the Sundance Channel

A quite lengthy, detailed interview with the director that covers a lot of bases including his decision on making the film, casting, making the music scenes realistic, and using Astrid's vintage photography of the band to scout perfect locations.

Interview with Iain Softley and Ian Hart

Softley's half of the interview seems somewhat repetitious after watching the previous Sundance interview, but Hart contributes a thespian perspective to the session. While interesting at first, this somewhat long interview had me a little tired, especially since this was the second one in a row.

Commentary with Iain Softley

I love it when commentary tracks give us surprise guests. For example this track, which advertises Iain Softley on the menu, also has actors Stephen Dorff and Ian Hart along for the ride. All three of these chaps have a lot to say about the shoot making this an above average chat session.

TV Featurette

This is one of those routine featurettes that gives too much away for those that haven't seen the film, yet state the obvious for those that have seen the film. Not worth the time.

Casting Session

It always seems that the farther you go down on the list of DVD features, the less significant they become. This is just filler as casting tapes are shown of Stephen Dorff, an actor that plays a small role as a record producer, and the Beatle actors rocking out. Pretty "blah" if you ask me.

Director's Essay

Photo Gallery
Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1. Even though a majority of the scenes are shot in dark, dingy clubs, the picture quality looks fantastic.
English Dolby Digital 5.1. The film had a bit of a problem with quiet dialogue scenes and booming music scenes giving me the occasional heart attack, but the sound is top notch. This can especially be said for the kick ass rock soundtrack.
The DVD itself is in a flimsy, cardboard keep case, which is sold inside a stiff slip sleeve. The outer sleeve contains the film's original poster art.
I am glad Focus Features/Universal decided to re-release this forgotten indie about the Beatle band that no one ever got to know. Iain Softley's debut feature is a great flick about music, art, love, and friendship. The Collector's Edition comes packed with quite a few extras with plenty of insight about the filmmaking, but I was hungry for a doc*mentary about the Beatles, or better yet, actual commentary from one of the Beatles (yeah right!). This is definitely worth a rental, or even a purchase, if rock dramas in the vein of The Commitments are your thing.

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