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BackBeat Cheat Sheet

BackBeat Cheat Sheet

Articles - Directing

While everyone is familiar with the story of
The Beatles’s meteoric rise from working class obscurity to international
fame, and most people are at least aware of the story of Pete Best,
the drummer who quit the group just before the band made it big,
very few people have heard the name Stuart Sutcliffe, the man who
gave the band its name and was John Lennon’s best friend. This appears
to be the last unturned stone in the Beatles legacy, and it is beautifully
turned in lain Softley’s new film, BackBeat.

A docudrama that explores the tragic friendship between
a pair of turbulent, talented young men, BackBeat raises Sutcliffe
from his status as a long-time rock ‘n roll asterisk to his rightful
place as a creative, original artist. At the same time, this film
serves to bring the legend of John Lennon into sharper focus; we
see the John Lennon of the early days, the surly, acerbic, often
violent young man too sensitive to fully enjoy the rewards of life
because he was always certain that disappointment or disaster was
just around the corner. This certainty spanned the widest gap imaginable
in 1962 when Sutcliffe died and The Beatles launched themselves
toward incomprehensible fame with the release of Love Me Do.

John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe met while attending
Liverpool Art College in 1957. An extremely talented and accomplished
painter, Sutcliffe sold one of his early paintings to a local art
collector and Lennon talked him into using the money to buy a bass
guitar so he could join his rock band. Without much (if any) musical
talent, but a love for rock music, Sutcliffe played with the band
during the lean years and endured dangerous gigs in the violent
working-class taverns of England, where he was eventually beaten
so severely by a gang of hooligans in 1959 that the incident may
have led to the brain hemorrhage that killed him in 1962.

When the band left for Hamburg, Germany in 1960,
Stuart was still with them. Although his musical incompetence bothered
McCartney, Harrison, and Best, Lennon refused to let him go. Running
on a diet of free beer, amphetamines and non-stop sex, The Beatles
played the clubs and strip joints of the notorious Reeperbahn red
light district of Hamburg, hoping to be discovered. One night a
bohemian photographer named Astrid Kirchherr walked into the club
and she and Stu fell in love. As their relationship developed, Astrid
wielded more and more influence over Stu, and eventually the rest
of the band. She invented the famous Beatles haircut and other aspects
of their "look." When the band broke a contract with one
club owner to get a better deal down the street, the authorities
were tipped off that Harrison was a minor and he was promptly deported.
In the following days McCartney and Best narrowly escaped being
charged with arson and were also deported. Lennon and Sutcliffe
returned to England . A few weeks later Stu returned to Hamburg,
quitting the band and resuming his art career. As soon as Harrison
turned 18, The Beatles were back in Hamburg. Upon arrival they learned
that Stuart was dead.

Double fantasy: Stephen Dorff as
Stuart Sutcliffe.

Backbeat is the type of film that is always subject
to historical inaccuracies in order to assist the flow of the narrative.
While watching it, one wonders what is real, what has been exaggerated,
and what has been ignored or played down. Although there are several
inaccuracies and omissions in the movie, only one of them really
undermines the credibility of this otherwise fantastic film: the
omission of the arson incident. It’s hard to believe such an episode
was ignored, considering how much flavor it could have added. But
this film doesn’t live and die by its historical authenticity; its
true vitality lies in the story of the friendship— a story
that turns a rock ‘n’ roll trivia answer into a human being we wish
had lived.

Although Sutcliffe probably wouldn’t have lasted
as a member of The Beatles, the influence he and Astrid had on the
most successful pop band of all time is undeniable. Astrid’s is
evident in the haircuts, clothing and style; Stuart’s is immortalized
by his presence in the crowd on the cover of the Sgt. Pepper album
(he’s on the far left in the third row from the top).

With Stuart Sutcliffe fully explored in BackBeat,
it appears now there are no mysteries left surrounding The Beatles;
no questions left to ask, except, perhaps, "what would Paul
McCartney have said if someone had told him he’d one day lose the
rights to the entire Beatles catalogue to an accused child molester?" MM

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