(Worth seeing)

Directed by Iain Softley

Written by Softley, Stephen Ward, and Michael Thomas

With Stephen Dorff, Sheryl Lee, Ian Hart, Gary Bakewell, Chris O’Neill, and Scot Williams.

Those somehow unacquainted with the vast canon of biographical material on the Beatles should note that in 1960 there were five of them. Stuart Sutcliffe, an art school crony of John Lennon and by most accounts a lousy bassist parted ways with the band more or less amicably in 1961; he died of a brain hemorrhage in April 1962, just a few months before the band hit it big with “Love Me Do.”

Stu isn’t the only former Beatle, but unlike ousted original drummer Pete Best he was fortunate enough to be a romantic figure–withdrawn and handsome, he reminded people of James Dean; a gifted painter, he quit the band for art’s sake. Sutcliffe certainly wouldn’t be the subject of an adoring cinematic portrait had he, like Best, grown old, gone to work for the civil service, and written a depressing autobiography. Dying young is sexy.

Iain Softley’s necrophilic semibiopic tinkers with the truth right away, setting up its hero as the archetypal doomed genius by opening with a Liverpool brawl in which Stu receives the head injury that eventually proves fatal. Official accounts say he sustained it much later, tumbling down a flight of stairs in Hamburg; much-reviled biographer Albert Goldman has theorized that he got it in a fight with Lennon himself. At any rate, Sutcliffe’s imminent death is clearly integral to the director’s sentimental vision of his character. Accordingly, the film and its copious press material make grandiose claims for Sutcliffe the artist–as if his death was poignant only in proportion to his wasted talent.

The film goes on to relate the story of the Beatles’ 1960 stint along Hamburg’s Reeperbahn, where they played a grueling roster of shows at seedy nightclubs, lived in squalor, and knocked back enough amphetamines to keep up the pace. There Sutcliffe (played by Stephen Dorff) met and fell in love with a young German woman, Astrid Kirchherr (played by Sheryl Lee, Twin Peaks’s Laura Palmer), and there Sutcliffe and the band gradually parted ways. Softley’s film centers on the relationship between Sutcliffe and Lennon (Ian Hart, who also played Lennon in Christopher Munch’s The Hours and Times), and his take on their friendship is clear from Backbeat’s tag line: “Five guys, four legends, three lovers, two friends, one band.” The three lovers being Stu and Astrid . . . and John, natch.

And there’s the rub: for all its Sutcliffe mythmaking, Backbeat is, in the end, about Lennon. Specifically (and less effectively than The Hours and Times), it’s about his latent gayness. The film goes to great lengths to portray the sexual overtones of the pair’s antagonistic friendship, apparently drawing on the perennial theory that competing over the same woman is a safe way of acting out sublimated homosexuality. It’s never entirely convincing in this respect, but it does offer detailed portraits of John and Stu and credible portrayals by Dorff and Hart. Unfortunately Backbeat provides only predictable thumbnail sketches of the other Beatles: Best as the stodgy one (he won’t do uppers or sport a Beatle ‘do), George as the mama’s boy (she sends him off to Hamburg with a parcel of home-baked scones), and Paul as the single-minded careerist (his desire to take over on bass speeds Stu’s ouster). The film’s portrayal of Astrid is equally uninsightful: she’s absurdly drawn as an all-knowing avant-garde aesthete who dazzles Stu by taking him to an art film and pierces John’s acerbic armor with astute psychological insights.

Backbeat spends a great deal of time dwelling on the obvious. For instance, it seeks to establish–stop the presses–the link between rock and sex. The film italicizes the fact that the band played in Hamburg’s red-light district. It claims that they alternated onstage with actual strippers (which they never did, although the first club they played in, Bruno Koschmider’s Indra, was a strip joint). In one particularly ungainly segment, footage of the band performing “Good Golly Miss Molly” (a song in which the term “rock ‘n’ roll” is used with its original meaning–as slang for having sex) is intercut with scenes of the provincial lads engaging in frenzied debauchery. At another point, performance footage is juxtaposed with Astrid and Stu going at it against a wet canvas–at once suggesting that rock, sex, and visual art spring from the same urge and that the pair kept a lot of turpentine on hand.

You’d think the one benefit of Stuart’s cinema-ready tale would be that fictionalizing would be kept to a minimum. Not so. Events are repeatedly tarted up or omitted to suit Softley’s maudlin take on Sutcliffe’s life. (A film is either biographical or it isn’t: if the details are going to be altered, why not give Stu uncanny superhuman powers, too?) The truth often undercuts the film’s simplistic notions about true love and about friendship. Hence the epilogue doesn’t mention that Astrid later reunited with Klaus Voormann, the artist she dumped for Stu, or that she eventually married another Liverpudlian musician, drummer Gibson Kemp of Rory Storm and the Hurricanes. In the film, Stu dies in the middle of a dramatic interchange with Astrid. In actuality, he was discovered unconscious at Astrid’s parents’ and died in an ambulance en route to the hospital. When Astrid meets Lennon at the airport with news of Stu’s death in the film, he soberly hugs her. In real life, according to The Ultimate Beatles Encyclopedia, Lennon “started laughing and couldn’t stop.”

The film does manifest a reverence for the real in one respect: music. To Backbeat’s credit (and that of music producer Don Was), the band in the movie makes no effort to replicate the Beatles’ sound, nor does it play any Lennon-McCartney compositions (in 1960, the Beatles still primarily did covers). Backbeat is no Beatlemania, but it does reveal Softley’s background in rock video–he greatly overestimates the entertainment value of performance footage. The sound track’s covers are performed by an all-star band including Dave Pirner, Thurston Moore, and Dave Grohl, who sound nothing like club-circuit neophytes taking a sloppy stab at Chuck Berry (the way the real band sounded on 1962’s raw Live! at the Star-Club). That means Sutcliffe, whose ouster was not wholly unrelated to his musical ineptitude, gets the last laugh: his instrumental stand-in is the highly skilled Mike Mills of R.E.M.