Blu-ray Review: Backbeat

Music critics love to debate who was the real Fifth Beatle. Was it their manager Brian Epstein? How about DJ Murray the K that broke them in New York City? Perhaps keyboardist Billy Preston who jammed with them during their final sessions? Some will even label it on Pete Best, but he was the original drummer. The Fifth Beatle will always be Stu Sutcliffe, the original bass player for the band. Haven’t heard of him? Well luckily enough Backbeat is out on Blu-ray and gives the story of Stu’s short tenure in the band during a seminal moment in the Greatest Band in the World’s creation.

Stu Sutcliffe (True Detective‘s Stephen Dorff) is an art school pal of John Lennon (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone‘s Ian Hart). The two are hanging at a bar when a couple rough Liverpool guys get offended that John and Stu are seeming too chummy with arms around each other. One of the thugs loses it when Stu has drawn a naked picture of his girlfriend. This leads to a flight that ends with Stu and John being beaten up in an alley. Stu gets kicked in the head. Seeing how this is 1961, a time before an MRI, Stu merely walks off his beating. The two teens don’t have much time to recover since they must sail off to Hamburg for their band has a longtime gig in Hamburg. It’s not the most fancy of clubs for the early Beatles. It’s in the port city’s version of The Combat Zone. The band played between dancing gals. Shea Stadium was not on the horizon for the band. But this is where the band truly learned to play and deal with out of control audiences. Although they were switchblade holding sailors and not screaming teenage girls. Even with the rough and tumble crowd listening to their early rock and soul covers, a few cool West German kids arrive. Among them are Klaus Voormann (Little Sharks‘ Kai Wiesinger) and Astrid Kirchherr (Twin Peaks‘ Sheryl Lee). They take a liking to the English lads. Astrid takes a major liking to Stu. This creates a major bit of tension as John doesn’t want to lose his friend. He also seems to take a bit of a fancy to Astrid. But this isn’t merely a lover’s triangle because there’s also Klaus dealing with his longtime girlfriend dumping him for a member of the band he likes. As much as things are going good for Stu, he’s being overcome by massive headaches that nobody can properly diagnose since it’s 1961. Everything seems on the verge of imploding right when they’re happening for the band. What will be Stu’s fate that leads us to never talk of The Fab Five outside of college basketball?

Supposedly Paul McCartney is not a fan of the film since he didn’t like how he was portrayed and the songs his character sung on stage. But this was not really the story of how the Beatles came together. This was about how poor Stu fell apart. The band was part of the story. In a strange sense, Stu is the original Sid Vicious. Sure he was on stage playing bass, but he was not a musician. He didn’t keep the beat that great. He was there because he looked cool on stage and was friends with the lead singer.

What makes Backbeat hold up is an amazing cast. Sheryl Lee nails the Germanic cool that Astrid needs to be at the center of so many things at once. She brightens up the screen even if her character is rather serious in her attitude. This was Ian Hart’s second time playing John Lennon. If you like Backbeat, you need to track down a copy of The Hours and the Times about Lennon and Brian Epstein slipping off to Barcelona before the Beatles explode. It’s great that he had a second chance to explore Lennon. Strangely enough Kai Wiesinger is also poignant as Klaus. His character uses his album cover connections to land The Beatles the chance to record as Tony Sheridan’s backing band. He doesn’t overplay losing his girlfriend to Stu because in the future Klaus wins the Grammy for designing the cover to Revolver and plays bass in John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. He had to handle the break up in a way that didn’t make a fan question why he went near The Beatles in the future.

The soundtrack is also a star even though it contains no Beatles music. The studio band included Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum), Greg Dulli (The Afghan Whigs), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth): guitar
Don Fleming (Velvet Monkeys), Mike Mills (R.E.M.), Dave Grohl (Nirvana) and Henry Rollins (Black Flag). It was a band of cool punky kids paying tribute to the time when the Beatles were rough and tumble.

Backbeat really gets into that time in Hamburg when The Beatles earned their edge. The film gives the full legacy of Stu. This is his story of being more than the guy who quit what would have been the biggest band in the world. Who cares if Paul McCartney doesn’t like it.

The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic. The 1080p transfer brings out the murkiness of Liverpool and Hamburg. The audio is DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround and the original 2.0 Stereo mix. The music really comes out at you during the club scenes. The movie is subtitled.

A Conversation With Astrid Kirchherr (7:22) is an audio interview with her. Clips from the movies and pictures from her collection illustrate her talk.

Deleted Scenes (2:55) has Stu and Astrid argue over the German lack of sense of humor and Stu zipping up for the party.

Interview With Director Iain Softley And Actor Ian Hart (10:00) has more talk of what went into creating this story of Stu and John Lennon.

Iain Softley Interview For The Sundance Channel (28:37) talks of how he came to the desire to make a film about Stu hit him during a bath.

Audio Commentary with Iain Softley, Ian Hart, And Stephen Dorff has the trio discuss how they got into this time before the Beatles were mop tops. Dorff sounds recorded solo and edited into the conversation between Iain and Ian.

TV Featurette (12:00) have them talk about the legacy of Stu. Dorff talks about how people in Los Angeles thought he was playing Pete Best.

Casting Session (6:42) has Dorff working on his accent and the band playing live before the Supergroup replaced their voices.

Trailer (2:17) lets know it’s about two friends who were part of The Beatles and meeting the German kids that would alter their lives.

Shout! Factory presents Backbeat. Directed by Iain Softley. Screenplay by: Iain Softley & Stephen Ward. Starring: Sheryl Lee, Stephen Dorff, Ian Hart. Rated: R. Running Time: 100 minutes. Released: February 19, 2019.

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