Make a Beatles biopic with absolutely no Beatles music in it. Go on, I dare you.
Getting the Fab Four to grace your movie or TV show, however big your budget, is notoriously difficult. Their manager Neal Aspinall was wary of diluting the brand, and for years Michael Jackson jealously hoarded the back catalogue (I picture him as an etiolated, racially ambiguous dragon crouching in the bowels of Neverland on a crumpled heap of sheet music, occasionally pawing a copy of Lady Madonna and hissing semi-threateningly through his nose). Since Jackson’s untimely/ timely demise (I have no clear idea how old he was, which I’m sure he would have been happy to know), a cover might occasionally slip through the net (The Black Crowes doing Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds on the I Am Sam Soundtrack, a bunch of then-unknowns with an unwelcome cameo from Bono in the dull musical Across the Universe). It reportedly took $250,000 and a lot of earnest sweet talking for HBO’s Mad Men to use a snippet of the psychedelic mind bender Tomorrow Never Knows in their final series, and who knows how much for The Social Network to get Baby, You’re a Rich Man playing out over the end titles (worth it).
Anyway, this Beatles biopic. It’s not going to have any Beatles music in it. Also it’s not about any of the Beatles. I mean, they’ll be in it. Except Ringo. OK, fine, we’ll glimpse him briefly on a bunkbed. But the main character will be an obscure modernist painter who ran off to Germany to be with a girl and died of a brain haemorrhage aged 21. John Lennon will mainly be playing the part of semi embarrassing dad with anger issues. Paul McCartney will be playing the part of nagging housewife. George won’t get any lines to speak of. The Drummer Who is Not Ringo will mainly contribute a great reaction shot to drinking something unfamiliar at a bar.
You may be assuming that I am not a hugely knowledgeable Beatles person. This is correct. Before I watched this film, I had never heard of Stuart Sutcliffe (and before I wrote this post I had no idea who Neal Aspinall was). In my mind, John Lennon is a spaced out hippy dude who liked lie-ins and Paul McCartney is the guy who was caught out miming in the London Olympics opening ceremony. George is a sort of amiable blank. Ringo is mainly wearing sunglasses and throwing peace signs on chat shows. Hey Jude is what they play in Liverpudlian clubs at the end of the night to encourage local revellers to get sentimental instead of aggressive on their way home.
So basically I’m a monster, is what I’m saying. But I do love this film.
In 1961, the Beatles – John, Paul, George and Ringo – played the Cavern Club for the first time. In 1960, the Beatles – John, Paul, George, drummer Pete Best and John’s best friend Stuart Sutcliffe, who was more interested in painting than playing bass but looked really cool in Ray-Bans – got on a ferry (cross the Mersey, obvs) and went to Hamburg. Both cities had been decimated by bombing in the Second World War, but while Liverpool was sunk in deep depression and still littered with derelict buildings and rubble, Hamburg was establishing itself as a den of European vice, welcoming an indiscriminate rabble of sailors, prostitutes and transvestites to its club scene. It had everything Liverpool didn’t – feather boas, cheap speed, neon lights, plentiful nipple tassels. Clearly all they were really missing were a few rousing choruses of Yellow Submarine.
The opening scenes make it clear why a bunch of teenagers looking for adventure might have been tempted away to exotic Germany. Liverpool was still dragging through the fag-end of the 50’s (when the proto- Beatles group the Quarrymen first played the Cavern in the late 1950’s, Rock ‘n’ Roll was not allowed and they had to stick to skiffle). In a dingy club, a primly beehived singer labours through Kiss Me Honey Honey while be-sweatered young couples revolve decorously on the dance floor, watched over by slouching dock workers. And at the back of the room Lennon and Sutcliffe (already out of place in their indoor shades and nascent quiffs) are downing pints and taking the piss, before Lennon’s apparently suicidal mouth gets them a good kicking outside and, for Sutcliffe, a head injury (In this film, having your head slammed violently against a wall is equivalent to showing your doomed leading lady delicately cough blood into a hanky).
The Lennon in Backbeat is about as far as you can get from the guy who pioneered the duvet day as a proponent for world peace. He’s an angry, abrasive, cocky little shit with a relentless line in terrible dad jokes (to one of Sutcliffe’s modern art paintings: ‘Hanging’s too good for it’) who is not above purposely throwing up on Paul McCartney’s shoes in order to win an argument. It’s questionable if you’d bother putting up with him in real life. However, Ian Hart apparently exists only in the world to break my heart and this role is no exception – so this Lennon’s smart mouth is covering a fierce intelligence and a fragile heart.
This is just as well because Stuart Sutcliffe himself is not a particularly interesting character. I’m all for Stephen Dorff – he was great in the first Blade film and I imprinted on him early due to that ace cinema ad for Tia Maria, remember that? (OK I know you don’t). He’s an entirely non-obvious choice to play scouse but really it’s not the worst version of the accent anyone has ever attempted. But while he might have been a very talented painter, his story arc is not very compelling – he half-heartedly wanders to German to play with the band, isn’t particularly good at it, meets a girl (Astrid Kirsherr, a photographer who would take seminal early shots of the band), decides to stay and dies tragically the following year. It’s his relationship with Lennon which is interesting, and of course, the music – or lack of it.
There isn’t a single Beatles track, cover or not, in the film. But this actually makes sense given they hadn’t written any of them yet. Instead, the soundtrack includes covers they actually played, so instead of Love Me Do you get high energy covers of Blue Suede Shoes, Twist and Shout, I Want Money, and best of all, Good Golly Miss Molly. The band do a pretty convincing job of lip-syncing (and only Dorff could actually play his instrument), but with the justification that the Beatles were the punk of their day, the soundtrack was actually recorded by a Frankenstein’s super group of rock royalty including Dave Grohl and refuges from REM and Sonic Youth. Bookended by bored strippers, boosted by little blue pills to get them through their eight hour sets, frothing at the mouth and manically strumming their guitars while wearing tutus, I’ve no idea if it bears much resemblance to real events but it’s a pretty effective way of showing, even to a philistine like me, what an adrenaline shot in the arm of the decorous popular music scene of the early 60’s the Beatles were. (‘I call it three days and nights without sleep. I call it too long between drinks. I call it dying for a piss. I call it a hard fuckin’ day’s night’ says Lennon, foreshadowing furiously).
None of this is to say that love interest Astrid herself isn’t compelling. She’s everything the sardonic, determinedly unimpressed scouse girls we see briefly at the start of the film aren’t (‘You call that art? Doesn’t look like art. Doesn’t look like anything’ sniffs a lachrymose life model). The scenes of Germany’s bohemian art scene could look like a parody of an East London hipster’s theme night (earnest party chess, black polo necks and unironic cape wearing to a soundtrack of ambient jazz with added sighing) but Astrid floats through those rooms in her fishtail parka and ballet shoes so sincerely and with such sustained grace that the hipsters become less ridiculous for her loving them so well, and the Liverpool boys look gauche by comparison.
A love triangle between Sutcliffe, Astrid and her long-time lover Klaus is echoed in a less tangible one between Lennon, Sutcliffe, and Astrid. But in the end the most complicated, fragile relationship is between Lennon and Sutcliffe themselves. (I love him, John, I do,’ says Astrid. ‘Yeah. Don’t we all?’ replies Lennon lightly, unbearably). After Sutcliffe has left the band and John (following a gutter punch up and a hug somewhere between an embrace and another fight) there’s a nice bookending scene when Lennon repeats a joke he tried out on Sutcliffe earlier in the film to his new straight man McCartney. But it seems obvious perky, fussy, bobble-headed Paul could never be an entirely satisfactory replacement for the man Yoko Ono later described as her husband’s ‘Alter ego … spirit in his world … guiding force’, and that makes the announcement of his death later in the same scene even more difficult to take.
Perhaps the last word should go to Ian Hart’s Lennon. In a variation on the famous ‘bigger than Jesus’ quote, there’s a chilling hint of a life that would end with the forty year old shot dead outside the Dakota hotel. This 19 year old version, practically vibrating with pent up aggression and shining hope, says ‘We’re gonna be big Stu. We’re gonna be too big for Liverpool, we’re gonna be too big for Hamburg. We’re gonna be too big for our own bloody good.’
Screengrabs ©Channel Four Films via Cinemagia. Original photo © Astrid Kirscherr