The more accurate question, perhaps, is what is there left to know about the Beatles?
When you've got a band whose entire tenure--not to mention the members' solo careers--has been dissected down to favored brands of cigarettes, where do you go? Backward, of course, back to the seminal, prefame days when roles and characters were being shaped and defined, when influences were still in the present tense.
But the Fab Four, clever lads that they were, didn't create themselves all alone. For three decades, anyone who so much as bought Lennon a pint has been lining up to claim the role of influential fifth Beatle. But once upon a time, there actually were five Beatles.
In 1959, John Lennon's best friend was a guy named Stuart Sutcliffe. They met at art college, where Sutcliffe was an extremely talented student; Lennon would later drop out. In January of 1960, Sutcliffe sold a painting for the then-lofty sum of 65 pounds, and--with the cajoling of Lennon and the enticing, image-enhancing status of being in a rock n' roll band--bought a Hofner President model bass guitar.
Thus, with no experience and apparently even less talent, Sutcliffe became the bass player for a little-known Liverpool band called the Silver Beetles. (Paul McCartney still hadn't switched from guitar to bass.)
This is where the tale of the new film BackBeat begins.
It follows the band to its early gigs in Hamburg's wicked red-light district, the Reeperbahn, where a bunch of young, German hipsters become devoted fans. Among them is a beautiful photographer fond of collarless, leather suitcoats, amphetamines and mop-top hairstyles; her name is Astrid Kirchherr. She and Sutcliffe fall in love. Since he's the sensitive art type, Astrid soon convinces him to give up the greased-back Elvis hair and jeans. Next thing you know, the whole band is dressing like this chick!
The Beatles were a kick-ass rock n' roll group at that time, but it was all downhill after that. Suits, wimpy songs and drugs. Who knows, if they'd stuck with straightahead rock and good ol' booze, they might have been cooler than the Stones! But I digress.
Anyway, this love affair is the central theme of the film; Astrid is played with a glowing intensity and a passable German accent by Twin Peaks' Sheryl Lee, Sutcliffe with capable intensity and a not-so-passable Liverpool accent by American Stephen Dorff. Lennon is the third of this trio (the film confronts John's crush on Astrid and--God forbid--his alleged mano a mano relationship with Stuart), and it is Ian Hart who turns in the most powerful performance of all. Hart has had experience; he starred as Lennon in 1991's The Hours and Times, a film exploring the 1963 vacation the late Beatle took with manager Brian Epstein.
I don't want to spoil it for anyone, so I won't reveal the dramatic ending. Suffice to say that Sutcliffe is no longer alive.
As pure entertainment, BackBeat does its job. The story flows consistently; there are enough music scenes--in great re-creations of German dives--to win over the sometimes-overwrought tale of young Euro love. And as far as the song list goes, you won't be hearing "Help!" or "Yesterday"; BackBeat is set in 61, remember.
At that time, the Beatles were doing material like "Money," "C'mon Everybody," "Twenty Flight Rock" and "Roadrunner," all of which are included in the soundtrack.
A major selling point of the movie is the band you hear performing these chestnuts. It's composed of alternative big shots Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs, vocals), Don Fleming (Gumball, guitar/vocals), Dave Grohl (Nirvana, drums), Mike Mills (R.E.M., bass), Thurston Moore (Sonic Youth, guitar) and Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum, vocals).
Hell of a lineup, but does it sound like the Beatles?
Hard to say, considering there are precious few recordings of the band at that stage. But the BackBeat band conveys in a big way the speed-powered energy and cocksure exuberance the Beatles undoubtedly had in those days. Dulli's vocals sound enough like Lennon's to work, but it's a fair bet that if Pete Best could have played drums as well as Dave Grohl, Ringo would still be working on a dock somewhere.
The biggest laugh, if you're a musician or know a lot about the Beatles, is Sutcliffe's (i.e., Mills') bass playing. The guy sounds like he's been playing for years, when in reality, he was so bad he'd perform with his back to the audience. At one point, Sutcliffe rips through walking bass lines holding a cigarette between the fingers of his left hand. Fat chance.
I spoke with Dorff (Sutcliffe) at a screening in Texas, and he agreed. "Yeah, I know that was wrong, but what was I supposed to do? Mike Mills is a fuckin' great bass player."
Another big BackBeat boner is dialogue. On two occasions, the amazingly prophetic Beatles speak sentences that involve the phrases "it's been a hard day's night" and "eight days a week." How about that? Director Iain Softley's explanation to me was that the lines "were just bits of fun. Journalists seem to pick up on them, but no audiences; we've tested the film very thoroughly."
On one hand, Softley has gone to great lengths to re-create minute details--Kirchherr herself acted as an adviser--yet he claimed it was not his intention to make a historically accurate rockumentary.
"I didn't want this to be a Beatles project, and I don't consider it a Beatles project," he told me. "I consider it a universal love story about three people who are romantic artists. . . . We avoid what appears in other historically based films, where this is supposed to happen because we all know about it, then that's supposed to happen. I wasn't interested in that."
Don't be fooled, though. The Beatles figure prominently in this movie, love story or not. The image put forth of Sutcliffe as a doomed, brooding pop hero serves the plot--and the legend--well; according to the press kit, "BackBeat might result in Stuart closing the gap on John as the most favored one [Beatle] from beyond the grave." Not bloody likely.
Still, he and Kirchherr had an undeniable influence on the Beatles, but just how much is only known to a tiny group of aging musicians.