Long before The Beatles were famous, they cut their creative teeth in the gritty clubs of Hamburg, Germany. A new musical based on the 1994 movie explores this time, and the complex relationship between John Lennon and Stuart Sutcliffe.
Backbeat: The Birth Of The Beatles is now playing in Toronto after its London opening last fall. The work captures the youthful zeal of a young band paying their dues, and features some of the best-known early rock hits in all their raucous, loud glory. While the movie offered a zealous punk rock vision of the young Beatles (aided by a super-band that included Dave Grohl, Thurston Moore, and Dave Pirner on the soundtrack), the stage translation (co-written by the film’s director Iain Softley) offers a conventional if musically thrilling sketch of a band overcoming the odds, navigating the difficult waters of art, heart, business and friendship, becoming a staple of popular culture in the process.
Opening in 1960 when the band -then known as The Quarrymen -are struggling to get gigs in their native Liverpool, John (Andrew Knott) introduces his cool artist friend Stuart (Nick Blood) to bandmates, even if the latter can barely play a note on the bass. The scene between the two youths, slowly strumming Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and gradually building in tempo and momentum, is touching for its simplicity, offering an effective reminder of the power of rock and roll to hard-scrabble youth in small industrial towns.
Stuart Sutcliffe (Nick Blood) gets his first lessons on the bass from John Lennon (Andrew Knott) in Backbeat: The Birth Of The Beatles, on now at Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre.
Booked to play six hours a night in a grotty club in Hamburg, the band soon attracts the notice of an eclectic group of artists, among them painter Klaus Voormann (Dominic Rouse) and his photographer girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr (Isabella Calthorpe). There’s an immediate attraction between Astrid and Stuart, and an immediate tension between her and John, all of which is played up between shifting scenes at the club where the band play, the cinema where they sleep, Astrid’s apartment, and Stuart’s studio. In real life, Sutcliffe decided on a career as an artist over one as a rock and roller; that decision automatically changed the dynamics of The Beatles (creatively and otherwise), and resulted in the lineup the world came to know and celebrate. His untimely demise reportedly left a huge, permanent hole in Lennon’s heart; Yoko Ono once said her late husband frequently spoke about his ex-bandmate.
This triangle -between Astrid, John, and Stuart - is what powers much of the tension in Backbeat, and yet it isn’t as dramatically compelling as it could be. The musical is very detail-oriented in some respects, offering a point-by-point portrayal of historical events, but its meticulousness sacrifices a considerable amount of entertainment (as well as emotional value) by killing the narrative momentum. Simple props and keen lighting (by Howard Harrison and David Holmes) help with locale and mood, but are limited by the constraints of a cliche-filled script, and characters who are less people than important cultural figures with little connection with each other or the audience.
Cylla von Tiedemann
Backbeat portrays The Beatles struggles as they rose to fame, playing the clubs along Hamburg's Reeperbahn. Paul McCartney (Daniel Healy), George Harrison (Dan Westwick), Stuart Sutcliffe (Nick Blood), and John Lennon (Andrew Knott) played six hour sets and would repeat many popular rock tunes of the day.
The club scenes, however, are rendered with a fantastic grit and debauchery, using the actual audience as the band audience, and featuring posing fashionistas and drag queens sauntering around the band, intrigued and mesmerized. The platform on which the group play moves upstage and down automatically, frequently bookending scenes and indicating a shift in drama; it’s effective at conveying structure but tends to be overused and lessens the rush of that gorgeous train of music, easily the best part of the musical. The script, by Softley and playwright Stephen Jeffreys, occasionally collapses history, events and relationships, which both aligns and works against the end result; we understand how The Beatles proper were forged in Hamburg through sheer hard work and determination, but we feel nothing for what the loss of Stuart Sutcliffe meant to John Lennon, on personal, intellectual or especially artistic levels. Thus are John, Paul, George Pete (Best, then the band's drummer) and Stuart himself all reduced to cliches, with John as the sneering, obnoxious, fierce individualist; there is no insight into the man's creative mind, or how that might've been a huge factor in his bond with Sutcliffe (played with square-jawed rigor by Nick Blood). The musical relies more on telling than showing, resulting in uneven characterization and one-dimensional relationships that make it difficult to sympathize, much less suspend disbelief. Alas, Backbeat rocks but its heart beats hollow.
While much has been written about Kirchherr being the possible first “Yoko” of the band, the script provides us with a deeper portrait of a woman ahead of her time, whose passion for culture matched her keen ability to recognize genius. It’s a pity more of her original work isn’t used in the show. While Backbeat gets the music very right (the performances of songs like “Long Tall Sally” and “Good Golly Miss Molly” aren’t so much imitations as they are lovingly loud, lively tributes) the visuals fall almost entirely flat. A few basic original photographs of the baby Beatles are projected on the set’s backdrop, and even now, over fifty years later, they’re moving for their impressions of an era filled with struggle, sacrifice, and ultimately loss. We see instantly recognizable faces: a scowling Lennon, a doe-eyed Harrison, a dour, if unmistakable McCartney and the ever-shaded, pouting Sutcliffe. These photos, along with a smattering of projections portraying Sutcliffe’s original paintings, provide more insight -and heart -into the swirling emotions and artistic impulses of the era, outside the music itself, of course. (The memorable image of Lennon being comforted by Harrison after Sutcliffe's passing -which would've provided some much-needed emotional heft - is unfortunately not used here.) However, projections of Calthorpe and Blood in-character (by Timothy Bird and Nina Dunn) are far less effective; done in the style of Kirchherr but lacking her distinctly snappy style or haunting soulfulness, they come off calculated and far too deliberate, lacking in the innate curiosity and youthful delight that was so central to both Kirchherr’s and the early Beatles’ work.
Cylla von Tiedemann
Isabella Calthorpe as Astrid Kirchherr and Nick Blood as Stuart Sutcliffe. Kirchherr's photographs of the very-young Beatles in Hamburg in the early '60s remain among the best works in rock and roll portraiture history.
Still, it’s good to see Kirchherr getting some overdue recognition onstage, and of course, for audiences to experience the tiniest slice of what may have been some of the best club gigs in the history of music. The sheer thrill of “Twist and Shout” never fades, as well it never should. You’ll be on your feet by the show’s end, dancing and clapping along, lost in the wonder of rock and roll itself - and that’s just how it should be.