The movies been
very good at capturing the spinit of rock and roll, and that’s one
of the reasons that Backbeat is such a welcome surprise.
It doesn’t glamorize The Beatles, but it doesn’t demythologize them,
either. Focusing on their early years in Hamburg, Germany, it manages
the trickiest task of all- it humanizes them. Certainly, it gives
a better picture of the band than any of their own films, with the
possible exception of the documentary Let it Be, which captured
their “final days” (metaphorically, if not actually) with an appropriate
The focus of Backbeat is,
of course, John Lennon- or more accurately, John’s relationship
with the onetime “Fifth Beatle,” Stuart Sutcliffe, an art school
friend who joined the band on their journey to Hamburg, Germany,
in 1960. One of the reasons the film works as well as it does is
the dark and edgy performance of Ian Hart, who previously played
Lennon in the lowbudget 1992 indie, The Hours and Times.
As with John’s relationship to gay manager Brian Epstein in that
film, there is a homoerotic vagueness in Backbeat as to John’s
relationship with Stu, without the Hours-like implication
that the relationship was ever consummated.
But what Backbeat has that Hours didn’t is the music. While Hours and Times avoided playing any Beatles-related music, Backbeat features
a remarkable recreation of the Beatles’s Hamburg repertoire of rock
oldies that is more raw and energetic (though far less sophisticated)
than anything the actual Beatles ever put on record. Indeed, the
Beatles’s own Hamburg performance, at least as captured on the bootleg Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, Germany, 1962, doesn’t come
close to this frenetic energy. This grittiness is matched by director
lain Softley’s recreation of the decadent Hamburg of the early `60s,
where The Beatles got their start playing backup band to strippers.
The film is less satisfying, however,
in its portrayal of Paul McCartney as a petty, whining foil to Lennon.
Although Paul and John generally split vocal chores 50-50, here
John does almost all the singing, leaving one with the untrue impression
that he was the sole creative force behind the band’s success. One
wonders, if Paul had really died in the late 60’s as was widely
rumored, what The Beatles myth would be like today. If Paul was
the martyr and John the survivor, would John’s contributions to
the band have been dismissed the way Paul’s have been? At any rate,
Gary Bakewell, who plays McCartney here, captures none of Paul’s
wit or charm. Even in appearance, he’s a caricature of McCartney-
tall, gawky, a cartoon figure in whose face you see Paul’s features
subtly distorted into awkwardness. The other Beatles, George and
Pete Best (Bingo joined in 1962, after Best was fired) are likewise
given perfunctory treatment, but they played a far less integral
role in the band’s rise than McCartney.
That quibble aside, this is one
of the few dramatic films ever to capture the rebellious spirit
of rock and roll in an intelligent way. The Beatles’s own films,
discussed below, never tried.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964):
The Beatles’s first movie was an instant classic, though it had
about as much in common with the real world as a Marx Brothers film.
Directed with zany energy by Richard Lester, it followed the band
through a day in the life, and was one of the funniest films of
the `60s, thanks to the inspired script by Alun Owen. Among the
many musical numbers included are the title song, Can’t Buy Me
Love, And I Love Her, and I Should Have Known Better.
Help! (1965): Lester again,
but this time the formula doesn’t work quite as well. Lennon said
in interviews that the Fab Four were stoned throughout the making
of this one; perhaps that’s why there’s a hazy silliness to much
of this movie, which involves a bizarre religious sect’s efforts
to recover a sacred ring from Ringo. Despite its flaws, Help! manages to entertain. In addition to the title song, this one
featured the gorgeous Ticket to Ride and the Dylanesque You’ve
Got to Hide Your Love Away.
How I Won the War (1967):
Not a Beatles film, but a reunion for Lennon and Lester, who fashioned
a dark, disjointed anti-war statement. The big question when this
came out was, ‘can Lennon act?’ The answer was a guarded yes, though
that ultimately turned out to be irrelevant; this turned out to
be his only screen performance.
Magical Mystery Tour (1968): If Help! was a bit hazy, this one was downright hallucinogenic.
Ironically, Paul- then thought to be the cleanest of The Beatles-
was the mastermind behind this acid-tinged, incoherent mess. Googoo-ga-joob.
Yellow Submarine (1968):
The moptops didn’t have much to do with this animated classic, but
it’s a wonderful relic of sixties idealism, featuring wonderfully
psychadelic animation as The Beatles try to save a group of hippie
innocents living in Pepperland from the Blue Meanies. Songs include
numbers from several Beatles albums, including Lucy in the Sky
with Diamonds, Nowhere Man, and All You Need is Love.
Let it Be (1969): A depressing
finale in which we’re invited to watch The Beatles disintegrate
before our eyes. Still, the music is wonderful, especially the final
rooftop concert, featuring Get Back and Don’t Let Me Down.
Caveman (1981): Ringo
has made several appearances since The Beatles split, but this was
most notable, an almost silent spoof of prehistoric times that featured
some hilarious dinosaur effects. Kids who like Barney should love
The Rutles (1983): Check
this one out- it’s a hilarious spoof of The Beatles by Monty Python’s
Eric Idle that features some marvelous musical sendups. And look
for George Harrison in a cute cameo appearance as a TV newscaster.
Give My Regards to Broad Street (1984): Paul’s one attempt at solo film stardom is an unqualified
disaster- an attempt to capture the spirit of A Hard Day’s Night that falls completely flat. The plot has something to do with Paul’s
efforts to recover stolen master tapes for a new album. There are,
however, a few good new songs, including the lovely ballad No
More Lonely Nights, as well as recreations of Beatles classics
like Yesterday, and Here, There and Everywhere. But
all and all, this one’s for diehard fans only. MM