• Backbeat (Shout Factory) Blu-Ray Review

    Released By: Shout Factory
    Released On: February 19, 2019
    Director: Iain Softley
    Cast: Sheryl Lee, Stephen Dorff, Ian Hart, Gary Bakewell, Chris O'Neill, Scot Williams
    Year: 1994
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    Backbeat - Movie Review:

    With all of the hoopla surrounding movie biopics lately, is it time to shine a light on the little-spoken-of Backbeat, the 1994 film that tells the story of The Beatles pre-fame days in Hamburg, with John, Paul, George, Pete, and....Stuart? Kids, you just don't realize how lucky you have it these days; in pre-internet (kinda) 1994, even those more than a little familiar with Beatles history were aware of original drummer Pete Best, and had heard the term, "The Fifth Beatle" applied to George Martin and Brian Epstein, but very few knew of Stuart Sutcliffe, the Fab Four's first bassist.

    Described by Dorff and just about everyone else involved as a, "love story between two men", Backbeat opens in 1960 Liverpool, where a young John Lennon (Ian Hart) and Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) drink their faces off in a local pub, eventually smart-assing their way into a damaging dust-up with some local sailors. With nights at the pub and frequent asskickings becoming a problematic lifestyle, Lennon dreams up a way to get out of the rut; a rock and roll band that he and accomplished artist Sutcliffe will form and steer to superstardom. Stu buys into the ramblings off his best friend by selling one of his paintings and buying an electric bass guitar, and, together with guitarist Paul McCartney (Gary Bakewell), guitarist George Harrison (Chris O'Neill), and drummer Pete Best (Scot Williams) the two Liverpudlians cross the water to learn their chops and realize their dreams onstage in Hamburg.

    But not even The Beatles started at the top, and the seedy strip club on Hamburg's notorious Reeperbahn known as the Kaiserkeller finds the lads playing multiple sets of rock n' roll standards in between dancing ladies who remove their clothing to wild hooting from the tough German audience. It's here that The Beatles make their mark and become a tightly-regimented musical machine, kicking in for hours a night and discovering the speedy drug known as Preludin, mixed with booze to provide the extra energy they need to keep up the pace. It's also the location that the band would experience two life-changing events; meeting fans Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee) and Klaus Voormann (Kai Wiesinger), and meeting the Polydor rep who would invite them to play on their first recording.

    And while it's no surprise that all of the Beatles are taken by the existentialist couple of Klaus and Astrid, introduced to Bohemian art and lifestyles (the likes of which would never make the cut in Liverpool), it's artist Stuart who dives in head-first and falls completely in love with Kirchherr, swiftly but without malice separating her from her romantic entanglement with Klaus, and placing himself in her bed. His bandmates have nothing but disdain for Sutcliffe's need to follow his new German girl around like a puppy dog to foreign film showings, but slowly allow their style and aesthetic to be influenced by Kirchherr through Sutcliffe. A talented photographer, Astrid is responsible for the first professional photos of The Beatles (which are still highly regarded), and her attempt to turn his teddy boy pompadour and sideburns into something more resembling Klaus' coiffure results in what the world would come to know as the infamous, "Beatles cut".

    As Stuart's infatuation with Astrid and his new friends grows, he begins to distance himself from his bandmates, missing recording sessions and gigs; events that Lennon knows are stepping stones to stardom, leaving his best friend behind. And while McCartney seems to be pleased that the weakest musical link of the bunch seems content to hand over bass duties while he immerses himself in his art and his girlfriend, a desperate Lennon angrily attempts to overcome his fear of losing the friend he loves like a brother to a woman he thinks is his better.

    The tragic story of Stuart Sutcliffe; a promising artist and member of what would become the most famous pop group in history, dead by cerebral hemorrhage at age 21; is not an easy one to tell, and Director Ian Softely and his writing partners were likely going to face criticism, no matter what. Paul McCartney has expressed his frustrations in the lack of attention to detail paid to who sang what, as well as alleged petty jealousy on his part, and George Harrison allegedly walked out of a screening in the first five minutes (likely because actor Chris O'Neill bears very little resemblance to him), but Kirchherr has given the film praise for its authenticity, and even McCartney had to acknowledge the stellar performance delivered by Dorff. Performances are a big part of the buy-in on Backbeat, and Dorff, despite taking flack for being an American with an unconvincing Liverpool accent, does a fantastic job in channeling Sutcliffe, down to physical appearance. Ian Hart, appearing as John Lennon for his second time on film, looks just enough like the 60's Ted to completely sell the character.

    Scotland-born Gary Bakewell also physically passes more than adequately as Sir Paul, though the casting of Harrison and Best doesn't quite match up; though it must be said that Scot Williams as Pete Best easily wins the best hair contest. Though the rest of the supporting cast are no slouches, Sheryl Lee's performance as Astrid leaves me dumbfounded, as the actress best known as Laura Palmer, and that screaming-always-naked girl from John Carpenter's Vampires, shows off a range of emotion and delivery I wouldn't have thought she was even close to capable of.

    A well-dressed set and a curious aesthetic separate Backbeat from similar, "park some old cars on the street and grease your hair" type films, and there's a definite eye for creating an authentic setting (though purists will likely balk at the wider headstock and incorrect pickups on George's Gretsch Jet), but Softley and Cinematographer Ian Wilson have implemented some different techniques that give Backbeat's retro look a simultaneous modern feel, capturing the dirt and grime of Hamburg with bright colours and equally bright lighting. In any event, Softley's beautifully framed shots and vision move his compelling story along at an enjoyable pace, faltering once or twice, but to no great negative effect, culminating in the emotional sucker-punch of an ending. And of course, there's the music; the soundtrack provided by Don Was and a, "grunge supergroup" made up of members of Gumball, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, REM, and Soul Asylum, a treasure of classic rock n' roll tracks tracked live, adding to the intensity and punk rock feel of the Beatles Hamburg club days, miles and years from the experimental psychedelia they would crank out shortly before their breakup.

    Backbeat - Blu-Ray Review:

    Backbeat comes to the Shout Select line on Blu-ray with a 1.85:1 AVC-encoded transfer that pops with colour, contrast, some impressive detail, and a minimum of print damage. While the transfer does a swell job of showcasing Softley's vision and Ian Wilson's cinematography, some pretty clean facial closeups indicate the presence of a bit of DNR at work. While it does lend itself to a slightly unnatural look at times, it's certainly not a dealbreaker, and almost a case of DNR done right, as the majority of the film has a very natural and impressive look to it.

    Two English Audio tracks (with optional English subtitles) are available here, a DTS-HD MA 5.1, and a DTS-HD 2.0 option. The 5.1 was my primary choice for this one, and anyone familiar with the film will appreciate the step up to lossless from the previous DVD release, as the sounds of Hamburg and primitive rock n' roll come to life beautifully, immersing the viewer in the auditory experience. The 2.0 is okay, but if you've got a surround setup, the 5.1 offers up a lot more.

    Thankfully, the extras from the DVD have been ported over, outside of the Director's Essay and Stills Gallery, in SD form.

    A Conversation with Astrid Kirchherr (7:22) features Kirchherr's photographs and clips from the film, with the photographer talking about the youth culture in Germany at the time, and her experiences with Stuart Sutcliffe and the rest of the Beatles. A very descriptive and engaging style of speaking, as well as her classic photographs and Sutcliffe's art on display makes this a fantastic supplement.

    Two Deleted Scenes (2:55) are presented in roughish looking form, and were wisely cut from the film.

    Interview with Director Iain Softley and Actor Ian Hart (10:00) is just that, with the two discussing the conception of the film, the locations used, and the challenges they faced in telling the story, among other things; including some good anecdotes from the set.

    Iain Softley Interview for The Sundance Channel (28:37) Again, Softley talks about his inspiration for making the film, explains what was happening when Lennon and Sutcliffe met Astrid and Klaus and why that made for a good story, the attitude of the music, and the creation of the Backbeat band. He pretty much talks non-stop, so it's jammed full of trivia.

    TV Featurette (12:00) is one of those vintage promos, but this one features on-set interviews with Dorff, Hart, and other actors, along with clips from the film, narration, and some video tracking issues.

    Casting Session (6:42) are taped casting sessions with improv featuring Dorff, Gary Bakewell, and other actors reading various characters, as well as a rough "band rehearsal".

    A Trailer is also included.

    A feature-length commentary is also available, with Softley, Ian Hart, and Stephen Dorff (recorded separately). Dorff talks about hanging out and drinking in Liverpool, and everyone chips in to talk about why they were making the film and the challenges in doing so. There's a bit of overlap with Softley's Sundance interview, and a whole lot of dead spaces, but it's still a worthy commentary.

    Backbeat - The Final Word:

    I'm admittedly biased, with Backbeat ranking very high on my list of favourite films, but Shout's Blu-ray release is a solid upgrade over the DVD in sound and picture, and having the extras from the DVD ported over is a nice touch; a very reasonable MSRP doesn't hurt, either. An excellent film gets a worthy release.

    Click on the images below for full sized Backbeat Blu-ray screen caps!