Backbeat was released in 1994, and it faced a somewhat unusual problem. The film tells the story of the Beatles before they hit it big (and before Ringo Starr joined). That idea appealed to super-hardcore Beatles fans who couldn't get enough of anything related to the band. Less hardcore fans, meanwhile, shrugged it off, wondering why anyone would want to see a movie about the pre-fame Beatles when the post-fame Beatles had enough drama and excitement to fill several movies. Your interest in Backbeat will still depend on how much you care about the group's early days. Nevertheless, Shout! Select's new Blu-ray release is impressively put together.
Directed by Iain Softley, the film charts the early days of the Beatles, specifically the rift that develops between John Lennon (Ian Hart) and Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) after the latter falls in love with German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Twin Peaks' Sheryl Lee). This romance threatens to tear the band apart, just as they're making some headway in the music business.
Backbeat is a little bit of a mishmash. The central romance doesn't really work. Dorff and Lee, both Americans, struggle with their respective accents, which has the effect of becoming distracting. They also fail to generate any sort of spark. Since we're supposed to believe this romance is a major impediment to the Beatles, their lack of chemistry holds the story back. It's additionally weird that they got someone to sing for John Lennon, but the singer's voice could not be more different than his.
On the positive side, Ian Hart is quite good as Lennon, capturing his stinging sense of humor and dedication to artistry. The musical performances, meanwhile, are the best part. Backbeat assembled an all-star band to record the songs that the actors mock-perform to. Included among them are Dave Grohl from Foo Fighters, David Pirner from Soul Asylum, and R.E.M.'s Mike Mills. Of course, no actual Beatles music is included – their great songs hadn't yet been written – but this is the movie's biggest highlight nonetheless.
Shout! Select's Blu-ray comes with a sizable amount of bonus features, starting with audio commentary from Softley, Hart, and Dorff.
“A Conversation with Astrid Kirchherr” finds the real-life photographer giving an audio interview (which plays over photos) in which she shares her memories of the events that inspired the film. Softley is the subject of a separate 28-minute interview from the Sundance Channel. He relates a substantial amount of information about all aspects of making Backbeat. In another interview, he and Hart similarly reminisce about the project.
Non-interview features begin with three minutes of deleted scenes. Nothing earth-shattering here, but they'll be fun to see for admirers of the movie. A 12-minute making-of documentary from 1993 provides a peek behind the scenes. The original theatrical trailer is here, too, as are nearly seven minutes of audition tapes from some of the actors.
Backbeat has great production values and music. If you're in the camp of people who are fascinated by the Stuart Sutcliffe/Pete Best years, the film will likely entertain you, and the wealth of bonus material will give you plenty to explore afterward.
For more information on this and other great titles, please visit the Shout! Select website.
Backbeat is rated R for strong language, and for sexuality. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.