On Sunday night, I unfortunately had nothing better to do than watch the 1994 Beatles biopic “Backbeat” on VH1 Classic. And now I’ll never get those two hours of my life back. The movie takes place during The Beatles’ pre-fame years, back when they were touring in Hamburg, Germany. At the time, they had five members: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, drummer Pete Best (who would later be replaced by Ringo Starr), and bassist Stuart Sutcliffe. The film is mostly Sutcliffe’s side of the story, focusing on his friendship with John Lennon (who was really the only reason he was in the band in the first place), his romance with German photographer Astrid Kirchherr, and finally his 1962 death of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 21. “Backbeat” plays out like a movie adaptation of a mediocre fanfiction, complete with gratuitous love scenes and gay subtext. And those were some of the less horrific aspects of the film.
As characters, all the Beatles besides John and Stu are pushed far into the background, having barely any part in the film whatsoever. For no apparent reason, “Backbeat” decides to impose some “silent drummer” stereotype on Pete Best (which is expanded upon in the form of a weak joke much later in the film, long after the viewer has forgotten that Pete even exists as a character, much less as the “silent drummer”). Ringo Starr is introduced halfway through the film and is never mentioned again.
Oh, and the music! The music was the worst part of the film. During the performance scenes, rather than having the actors merely lip-sync The Beatles’ own recordings or at least decent soundalikes of The Beatles, the film instead chose to have the actors lip-sync (and lip-sync poorly, I might add) re-recorded versions that sounded nothing like The Beatles. After doing some research on this aspect of the movie, which I assumed to be the result of mere carelessness, I found it to be much worse: it was fully intended. According to the film’s trivia section on the Internet Movie Database, the film used 1990s punk artists to re-record the songs performed in the film, since, according to whatever pretentious twit was behind this decision, the savage rock that The Beatles performed in Hamburg was “the punk of its day”, so using punk-rock versions of “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” was somehow an attempt “to better convey the way the music felt to the early Beatles audiences.” Give me a break.
As for the plot itself, I would have much preferred a film that documented The Beatles’ Hamburg days from a more omniscient point of view. Stu’s relationship with Astrid was a poor subject to focus on, since so little is known about it. If you ask me, the attempts to flesh out their romance sabotage the only thing that made it marginally interesting, which was its mystique. The lovemaking scenes, though thankfully brief and not at all graphic (though I did see a TV version, so some stuff may have been cut out), are overabundant, and worse still is the nausea-inducing scene in which Stu first romances Astrid, peering at her over his sunglasses as he croons “Love Me Tender”. In addition, there were so many more interesting (or at least more amusing) things that happened to the other Beatles while in Hamburg, which the film either neglects to mention or makes only passing reference to. The Beatles were all relatively sheltered boys from Liverpool; when they got to Hamburg, their eyes were opened to an alien world full of strippers, hookers, transvestites, and amphetamines. A seventeen-year-old George Harrison, who had to lie about his age so the band could play in the seedy Hamburg nightclubs, lost his virginity to a practical stranger. Paul McCartney and Pete Best had to spend the night in jail after a childish prank involving a condom, a concrete wall, and slightly pyromaniacal tendencies. This period of The Beatles’ career could have made a great film about the loss of innocence that comes with breaking into the music business, but instead it chose to focus on a romance that no one really cared too much about and the largely unprovoked (and possibly homosexual) jealousy it may have sparked in one John Lennon. The result was a movie so painful to watch that I would gladly exchange the two hours I spent watching it for two hours re-watching “The Doors”, which, until Sunday night, was by far my least favorite music-related movie.