Backbeat: Movies about John Lennon

Though most people will relate to "Backbeat" as a chronicle of the early, pre-celebrity days of the Beatles, the movie aims to tell a different, quite ambitious story.

The narrative centers on the little-known yet original fifth Beatle, Stuart Sutcliffe (played Stephen Dorff), a talented young painter, with rock 'n' roll sensibilities, who in 1960, forgoes his promising art career to join his best friend's band and perform in Germany.

The best friend is, of course, John Lennon, beautifully played by Ian Hart.  Hart had previously embodied John Lennon in the moody, black-and-white, "The Hour and Times," Christopher Munch's stunning debut, in 1992.

Backbeat provides a fascinating look at the band's Liverpool and then Hamburg days. Set in the years of 1960-2, just before Beatlemania began to spread in England and later in the U.S., Backbeat captures the band's wild nights in Germany, the seedy underground clubs they performed in, the admiring screaming girls. Fans of the Beatles will get a sense of how the world's best-known superb and, whose music is now considered classic, established itself amidst some internal personal conflicts. The music that the Beatles played in those fateful years, before they began composing their own, is performed by a power band comprised of Greg Dulli, Don Fleming, Dave Grohl, and others.

The film also tells a touching love story between Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirchherr ("Twin Peaks" Sheryl Lee), the beautiful German bohemian, who photographed the Beatles and is also credited with creating their longhaired look–and image. Backbeat suggests a deep, always complex (sometimes even homoerotic) relationship between Lennon and Sutcliffe.

There is one particularly sad moment, when Sutcliffe leaves the band after realizing that Paul McCartney is a better bass player and that painting is more important to him. Says the offended Lennon: "They'll say, 'There goes Stu Sutcliffe. He could have been in the Beatles." This statement turns prophetic when two years later, Sutcliffe suddenly dies of a brain hemorrhage, just when the Beatles begin to leave their mark on the international scene.

Rock video and documentary director Iain Softley, who discovered Kirschher's photographs in 1983, makes an impressive debut in Backbeat, a highly energetic film that highlights how the most personal decisions can affect music history–and the fate of a whole generation.