Beatles Biopics: 'Backbeat' Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Beatles Biopics: 'Backbeat'

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Beatles Biopics
'Birth of the Beatles' | 'John & Yoko: A Love Story' | 'The Hours and Times'
'Backbeat' | 'Two of Us' | 'The Linda McCartney Story' | 'In His Life: The John Lennon Story'
'Nowhere Boy' | 'Lennon Naked'

This 1994 Film Four biopic concentrates on the story of Stuart Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirchherr. Indeed, the actors playing these two roles are the two leads of the film. Three of the Beatles  –  John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, with Pete Best as the drummer  – have a predominantly secondary role. Ringo Starr himself only appears as the briefest of cameos – for most of his screen time only his feet are visible, as he lies asleep on the top of a bunk bed – with only a one-second glance at his face.

Backbeat takes place over a period between 1960 and 1962, giving pre-eminence to the trips to Hamburg and Stuart Sutcliffe's involvement in the Beatles, from joining to leaving and his death. That it shows a comparatively short period is to the film's benefit as it is able to tell the story that it does in greater depth than Birth of the Beatles.

Again, as with Birth of the Beatles, great steps are made to emphasise its authenticity. This is very evident in the end credits, which state 'what happened next' to the major characters in the film. This, as with chronicling real events, such as the building of the Berlin Wall, gives the film a documentary feel. Among the credits, special thanks are given to Stuart Sutcliffe's younger sister, Pauline Sutcliffe, who also co-wrote the film's book tie-in1 as well as Astrid Kirchherr herself and Klaus Voormann. This emphasises the film's authenticity, although other key characters that the director talked to sadly and strangely aren't credited. Iain Softley states in his interview:

I tracked down Millie and Pauline Sutcliffe, Stu's mother and sister, Bill Harry, editor of Merseybeat, and Arthur Ballard, Stu and John's art teacher.

This, though, does not provide us with information why Millie Sutcliffe, Bill Harry and especially the famous artist Arthur Ballard, who is even a character in the film, are not given any on-screen credit.

The Backbeat book states in the prologue:

Those whose lives are devoted to collating facts about the Beatles may pounce on mistakes and omissions while scrutinising Backbeat.

This sentence implies two things; firstly that the team behind the film knows that their film contains mistakes and omissions. Secondly, as the word 'may' conveys permission, these mistakes and omissions can be investigated and scrutinised.

The director Iain Softley, in an interview on the DVD, has said that The last thing I wanted to do was tell a story about the Beatles in Hamburg from a biographical point of view and he tried to not get diverted into telling a rock and roll biopic. This is a strange comment for a film marketed as a Rock and Roll biopic. The film's very poster image and cover for the DVD shows not only the faces of Stuart Sutcliffe and Astrid, but also the Fab Four in black and white poses copied from the With the Beatles album. The film's tagline: He had to choose between his best friend, the woman he loved... and the greatest rock & roll band in the world screams that this is a Beatles biopic.


Sheryl LeeAstrid Kirchherr
Stephen DorffStuart Sutcliffe
Ian HartJohn Lennon
Gary BakewellPaul McCartney
Chris O'NeillGeorge Harrison
Scot WilliamsPete Best
Kai WiesingerKlaus Voormann
Jennifer EhleCynthia Powell
Frieda KellyMrs Harrison
James DohertyTony Sheridan
Paul DuckworthRingo Starr


The songs the characters of the Beatles perform in the film are:

  • 'Good Golly Miss Molly'
  • 'Carol'
  • 'I Remember You'
  • 'Twenty Flight Rock'
  • 'Long Tall Sally'
  • 'Rock 'n' Roll Music'
  • 'Love Me Tender'
  • 'My Bonnie'
  • 'Twist & Shout'
  • 'Money (That's What I Want)'
  • 'Slow Down'
  • 'Please Mr Postman'

The Backbeat Boys:

Greg DulliVocalsThe Afghan Whigs
Don FlemingGuitar/VocalsGumball
Dave GrohlDrumsNirvana & Foo Fighters
Mike MillsBass Guitar/VocalsREM
Thurston MooreGuitarSonic Youth
Dave PirnerVocalsSoul Asylum

Other songs not performed by the Beatles featured prominently in the film, especially 'Kiss Me, Honey', 'I Remember You' and 'Roadrunner'. A Backbeat album was released to tie in with the film, however it only lasts a very disappointing 27 minutes and its leaflet concentrates on informing you about the films' production credits and has the same background photograph of a screaming girl twice. The running order also does not follow the order in which the songs are performed in the film.

Soundtrack Album:

  • 'Money (That's What I Want)'
  • 'Long Tall Sally'
  • 'Bad Boy'
  • 'Twist and Shout'
  • 'Please Mr Postman'
  • 'C'mon Everybody'
  • 'Rock 'n' Roll Music'
  • 'Slow Down'
  • 'Roadrunner'
  • 'Carol'
  • 'Good Golly Miss Molly'
  • 'Twenty Flight Rock'

Greg Dulli was the lead vocal on eight of the 12 tracks. Dave Pirner was lead vocals on 'Money (That's What I Want)', which was also released as a single, 'C'mon Everybody' and '20 Flight Rock', and Mike Mills was lead vocals on 'Roadrunner'. Bizarrely, the album contains a song not in the Backbeat film; 'Bad Boy'.

A separate album containing seven tracks of Don Was' soft jazz background music was also released. Considering that the main album was under half an hour long, having to buy a second album when there was more than enough space left on the main album to contain the additional material just emphasises how poor value the original album was.

Similarly, the 'Money (That's What I Want)' single's B-Side was 'Dizzy Miss Lizzy', a song missing from the Backbeat album. It really does seem a poor showing that two albums were released. After all, the album Yellow Submarine contained a song half and a soundtrack half, as did the original American A Hard Day's Night and Help! albums. As the real Fab Four themselves combined songs and background music into one album, for a Beatles biopic to release two albums instead of one seems an out-of-character decision. Perhaps the reason behind this also explains why the song 'Money' is the soundtrack album opener.

The soundtrack, which was produced by Don Was, was carefully chosen to avoid any Lennon/McCartney originals, yet instead shows the band playing songs that they did indeed sing during this period. However, despite this, the soundtrack was one area that Paul McCartney disapproved of, especially the presentation of John as the sole lead singer2. Paul McCartney felt, with justification, that the film gave his character a much-reduced role and put his musical ability and contribution in the background. Paul McCartney, one of the 20th Century's greatest songwriters, is criminally all but ignored in a film that shows his youth and defining experiences. The soundtrack however, won the 1994 BAFTA Award for Best Film Music.

In the DVD's commentary the director reveals that he intended that the John Lennon song 'Love' be played over the end captions. This would have been a particularly appropriate song, both because it perfectly matches the mood of the moment and the underlying theme of the film. It is also a track that Klaus Voorman, a central and indeed essential character in the film, played bass guitar on, having been taught the basics of the bass by Stu. However, permission to use the track was denied. Sometimes being an award winning film just isn't enough.

The Film

The film begins with a montage of typical 1950s and early 1960s film clips, none of which seem to add anything to the film, unlike the screaming Beatlemania that introduces Birth of the Beatles. Similarly to Birth of the Beatles, and even the film Yellow Submarine, the Liver Building in Liverpool is shown to introduce the setting of Liverpool. The opening song 'Kiss Me, Honey', performed by an innocent-looking girl in a pub, contrasts with the 'Beatles' song over the end credits, 'Slow Down'. The slow song at the start is meant to represent what British music and entertainment was like before the Beatles, compared with their dominance at the end of the film3.

The film's opening sequence has John and Stu at a pub that they shortly vacate when chased by sailors who assault Stu, giving him a nasty blow to the head. This takes place before the band's first trip to Hamburg – which contrasts with Birth of the Beatles, where Stu receives a blow to the head between the two Hamburg trips. This attack is highlighted with Stu covered in bright red blood of the sort normally reserved for virgins in Hammer Horror films, and an annoying reverberating stringy noise in the background. This noise demonstrates that the film has artistic pretensions – whenever Stu acts or suffers anything as a consequence of this attack, a bright visceral red and the annoying vibrating noise always accompany the scene. John's reaction to this attack is the prescient prediction: You killed him!

In Backbeat, the opinion of the doctor in the film is that Stu is suffering from a blow to the head. This contrasts with Birth of the Beatles, where he steadfastly refuses to see a doctor. The book tie-in4 emphasises the drugs and also mentions a head injury caused when Stu fell down the stairs of the Hamburg attic he used as a studio. Dr Peter Hommelhoff, Director of Medicine in a Hamburg Hospital, has stated that his death was caused by the mixture of alcohol and Preludin. His symptoms, including the headaches, coupled with the post-mortem report, all indicate the death was drug-related. The film portrays Stu as the innocent victim of a brutal assault which caused his death. This theory, though dramatic, removes all blame for his death from Stu himself, does not seem grounded in fact.

Backbeat shows itself as being inspired by Birth of the Beatles as it too properly introduces Stu in a scene in which he is painting a nude model. In Birth of the Beatles he was merely one of many young people, including John and Cynthia Lennon, at an art class, whereas in Backbeat, Stu alone is painting the model. This is a stronger entrance for him as he is presented as a serious, dedicated artist rather than a school pupil.

The lads themselves are portrayed as more likeable than their Birth of the Beatles counterparts. There is more friendly banter between them, even when Paul criticises Stu's bass playing, you know that, as Paul says in the film: Whatever I said, I never meant it. George Harrison is the Beatle whose family life is presented in a rather amusing scene, with his mother giving him scones. Indeed, in a nice touch on the filmmaker's part, George's mother is played by Frieda Kelly, who was secretary of the Beatles' Fan Club in its earliest days, and who gets a mention on their 1963 Christmas message. Ringo, however, only has the briefest of cameos, with an under-a-second shot of his face and a few lingering seconds with his feet in view.

There is some dialogue added purely for the audience. This reminds viewers that they are watching a story about characters about to become world famous as the Fab Four and detracts from the story as it interrupts the time and place in which those scenes are set. John describes working at the KaiserKeller club in Hamburg as A Hard Day's Night and Stu says he performs in a band Eight Days A Week. The most inappropriate line is delivered by John Lennon: There goes Stuart Sutcliffe – he could have been in the Beatles. This seems an out-of-character remark as Stu at this point had been in the band for over a year. Indeed, it was Stu who named the band the Beatles5. This, and the fact that in early 1960, before the Hamburg trips and when playing local Liverpool venues, Stu acted as their manager, aren't mentioned in the film at all. It seems strange that a film about Stuart Sutcliffe's involvement with them misses out two of his biggest contributions. It is odd that in the film Stu says: [I] never really learnt how to play, when the director in the commentary states that, in his research, Klaus Voorman felt strongly that Stu was a very good bass player, but had a simplistic style of playing.

The film, undeniably, is very well researched. Stu's paintings in the film are based on actual Stuart Sutcliffe paintings. The Polydor record session, where the lads back Tony Sheridan on 'My Bonnie', actually features the genuine 'My Bonnie' recording the Beatles and Tony Sheridan made6. Many scenes were filmed in the genuine locations. The director, Iain Softley, has said:

When you're making a film that's based in some way on something that happened I think it's important from a dramatic point of view not to be enslaved to the specifics of the story... but I think you have to be true to the underlying truth of it... My rule is to make it as accurate as you can unless it gets in the way of some truth and then you perhaps interpret and alter it a little bit.

This explains the reason why the Beatles are shown performing straight away at the KaiserKeller club, rather than begin at the Indra Club and then progress to the KaiserKeller. This, though more accurate, would have bogged the story down in unnecessary detail. The film has a montage similar to Birth of the Beatles, which featured cuts between the Beatles' initial appearances on stage and fight sequences. However, the montage in Backbeat shows their initial appearances on stage and cuts with strippers performing also. Although the club was located in the Reeperbahn district of Hamburg, and the Indra Club was a former strip club hastily converted into a music venue, but without changing the décor from its former life, the band did not perform on stage with strippers whilst in Hamburg7.

Yet, despite the film's high standard of research, it still makes some strange mistakes. George Harrison in the film admits that he will be 18 in February8, yet he is shown celebrating his 18th birthday in the Cavern in March.

The film is also strongly influenced by A Hard Day's Night, most clearly in the scene in which Astrid takes the group for a drink. When given a drink, the What do you call that? 'Henry' dialogue is a homage to the What do you call that hairstyle you're wearing? 'Arthur' retort from the press scene in A Hard Day's Night  – a scene whose dialogue is also quoted in Birth of the Beatles.

Pete Best only has three lines in the film. In the first, when asked if he had ever been abroad, he states that he has been to the Isle of Wight. This seems an odd reply for someone born in Madras, India. In his next line he states: Drummers don't talk, and after his final line George, amazed, exclaims: He spoke! For a film that emphasises one of the smaller cogs in the Beatles, this all-but ignoring of another of the lesser-known members seems strange, especially considering that Pete Best's face is given equal prominence to John, Paul and George in the Backbeat poster.

One of the film's nicest touches is when Astrid, who was from quite a respectable family, is introduced. Klaus brings her to the KaiserKeller club while the Beatles are playing one of the verses from 'Rock 'n' Roll Music':

I took my loved one over 'cross the tracks
so she could hear my man a-wailin' sax
I must admit they had a rockin' band
And they were blowin' like a hurricane

The Reeperbahn district of Hamburg certainly was 'cross the tracks for Astrid, Klaus' loved one, and he had taken her there to hear the rockin' band the Beatles who certainly were going like a hurricane. Astrid's introduction coinciding with the song lyrics it's got a Backbeat you can't lose it, which includes the title of the film, also emphasises the film's true focus.

The life story of Stuart Sutcliffe is one that predates and mirrors that of John Lennon. Stu falls in love with an artistic foreign woman, leaves the band, moves abroad, settles down and then dies a tragic death. John Lennon would later fall in love with Yoko Ono, an artistic foreign woman, move abroad, settle down and was subsequently murdered. It is perhaps this point that explains the scenes in which John is portrayed as being jealous of Stu and wanting Astrid for himself. By all accounts, in real life, John not only did not fancy Astrid, but also had little but disdain for her. The scene after Stu's death where Astrid and John kiss is never really explained in the film and did not happen in real life, so the only reason for its inclusion seems to be an attempt to draw parallels between Stu's and John's lives and portray Astrid as an early Yoko substitute.

The Film's Reception

Iain Softley has stated that:

One of the greatest accolades we had other than Astrid seeing the film and being very moved by it was we showed the film to Cynthia Lennon... and after the film told us she liked it very much. The day of the premiere... Cynthia Lennon and Julian Lennon was there... he said he was coming to see the film because his mother told him if he saw the film he would meet his father that night.

He has also commented that Billy Preston9, who was in Hamburg with them in 1962 (but sadly does not appear in the film), felt that it was authentic.

Paul McCartney, however, has been less kind:

One of my annoyances about the film Backbeat is that they've actually taken my rock 'n' rollness off me. They give John the song 'Long Tall Sally' to sing and he never sang it in his life. But now it's set in cement. It's like the Buddy Holly and Glenn Miller stories. The Buddy Holly Story does not even mention Norman Petty, and The Glenn Miller Story is a sugarcoated version of his life. Now Backbeat has done the same thing to the story of The Beatles.
Beatles Biopics
1The Real Life Story Behind Backbeat Stuart Sutcliffe: The Lost Beatle by Alan Clayson and Pauline Sutcliffe. This is a biography of Stuart Sutcliffe's life.2The director in the commentary replied to Paul McCartney's criticism, especially of 'Long Tall Sally'. He says that it was actually Paul McCartney's character singing, however the cameras are simply focusing on John Lennon and ignoring Paul McCartney, inadvertently giving the impression that it is John, and not Paul, performing.3The film's opening in a pub with a female singer, though a lovely artistic touch, upset those involved in Liverpool's club scene in the 1960s who felt it ignored the vibrancy of the Mersey Beat atmosphere, which is portrayed in Birth of the Beatles but ignored in Backbeat.4The tie-in biography co-written by Pauline Sutcliffe, Stu's younger sister, and respected biographer Alan Clayson. Since co-writing the Backbeat book, Pauline Sutcliffe wrote The Beatles' Shadow: Stuart Sutcliffe and his Lonely Hearts Club Band, a book in which she claims that it was a fight which resulted in her brother's death, whereas Alan Clayson has co-authored The Walrus was Ringo: 101 Beatles Myths Debunked, in which he criticises Pauline Sutcliffe's book for being subjective with little basis in fact. Pauline Sutcliffe was in the UK at the time of Stu's addiction.5Interested in Buddy Holly's backing group, the Crickets, Stu suggested that the band should call themselves 'The Beatals', to include the word 'Beat', which John changed to 'Beatles' after a short spell as 'The Silver Beatles'.6PolyGram, the film's distributor, was part of the same organisation as Polydor Records, which owned the rights to the Beatles' recordings with Tony Sheridan.7However in July 1960, before their trip to Hamburg, the Beatles' agent Allan Williams had opened a strip club in Liverpool. He hired the out-of-work and desperate 'Silver Beatles', John, Paul, George and Stu (this was before Pete Best joined the group) for a week to perform as a backing group whilst a big-busted stripper from Manchester known only as 'Janice' took her clothes off. This was considered by all of them to be the lowest point of their career.8George Harrison was born just before midnight on 24 February, 1943, and for much of his life mistakenly believed he was born early on 25 February.9A keyboard player who was a close friend of George Harrison's since the age of 15, when George met the young Billy in Hamburg. George brought him on to play on the Get Back sessions, and he also played on George's All Things Must Pass, Thirty Three and a Third and The Concert for Bangla Desh, as well as appearing in the Concert for George. George also regularly performed on Billy's albums also.

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