Opened: April 1994 | Rated: R
"Backbeat" has everything a rock 'n' roll movie needs. It has a fight scene in a bar, it has characters that can't complete a sentence without swearing, it has bad acid trips narrated with a David Letterman-style Bad-Acid-Trip Cam and it has girls that can't seem to keep their shirts on.
"Backbeat" also has a problem -- it has way too much of everything a rock 'n' roll movie needs and it doesn't need any of it. After all, it's about the Beatles. Why would you want to add anything?
But writer-director Iain Softley went out and bought the Paint-By-Numbers kit for making a rock 'n' roll movie.
The story is supposed to be about Stuart Sutcliffe, the bassist who left the Beatles just before they became the greatest rock band ever.
But it could be about anyone in any band since the only thing that really stands out in the film is the cliches.
The story opens at a bar in Liverpool with the obligatory moody-future-rock-star fight scene. John Lennon (Ian Hart) and Stuart (Stephen Dorff) get roughed up by guys twice their size.
John, Paul (Gary Blackwell, who is a dead ringer for McCartney), Stuart and the rest of the band have a few scenes in England for the sole purpose of establishing that Stuart is also a painter. They then fly to Hamburg for a gig at a strip joint, which teenage girls hang out in for some reason.
Stuart meets Astrid, played by Sheryl Lee (who is a much better actress now that she is out from under David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" thumb), and begins to lose interest in the band as he falls in love. The Beatles go on to be huge and Stuart stays in Germany with Astrid.
It's just about that interesting, too.
I went into "Backbeat" with high hopes -- the Beatles story from a totally different perspective should make for a good movie -- but there are just too many problems for the film to see its potential.
The rock 'n' roll cliches are abundant. The whole band swears like sailors for no good reason, John, Paul, Stuart and George are way too well dressed for working-class Liverpool kids, the band sounds good enough to be recording a "best of" album when they've just begun playing clubs, and the list goes on.
The biggest problem with "Backbeat" is trying to overcome the believability factor. Everyone in the world knows something about the Beatles, so the audience can't help but wonder if most of these scenes really happened or if they were just made up for the sake of plot.
The movie is full of moments that inspire a silent "Yeah, right," like when Astrid first comes into a club the Beatles are playing she and Stuart stare at each other longingly, unhindered by the fact that the lights are low and Stuart is wearing sunglasses.
The fact that everyone is dressed in modern, retro-'60s fashions rather than the real McCoy is another distraction.
The dialogue is no prize either. Astrid is the only character with anything insightful to say, and when the characters stop swearing long enough to have a normal conversation, too often it is about how the Beatles are going to be big, just you wait.
John says it (three times), Stuart says it, Paul says it. Astrid even gets to ask the question even an inexperienced script writer should have left out: "Tell me John Lennon, when you are famous, and someone asks you if you remember Astrid..."
Rounding out a list of cliches that includes teen angst fight scenes, bad-drug-trip scenes and band-practicing-future-hit scenes, is the fact that every female with a speaking role spend half her screen time running around with her top off and falling into bed with various band members.
Apparently that is the most important thing we need to know about the early days of the Beatles.
The inherent problem with "Backbeat" is the lack of strong central characters. Everyone in the story seems to be in a supporting roll. Twenty minutes into the film I found myself saying "I thought this movie was supposed to be about Stuart."
Also, the movie is being targeted at the MTV crowd, but assumes a working knowledge of Beatles history and leaves out details many college-aged kids won't know.
Then it ends with a where-are-they-now sequence, as if anyone didn't know.
"Backbeat" is playing in San Francisco now, and opens in Easy Bay theaters next week.
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