FILM / The one that got away: Sheila Johnston on Backbeat, Iain Softley's film about the guitarist Stuart Sutcliffe and his short stint with the Fab Four

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Remember England, Little England, before the advent of the Pill and cheap foreign travel, England still poised in limbo between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles' first LP? If you do, Backbeat nails this moment bang to rights - or at least the moment as it has imprinted itself on the popular memory. If you don't, the interminable, faintly absurd end credits will patiently explain that although in the film the band is still quite a bit smaller than Jesus, it went on to have many, many No 1 hits.

Backbeat - a comeback picture for Steve Woolley and Nik Powell with their new company, Scala, after Palace's spectacular collapse - is spritely, entertaining and very likeable. Iain Softley, its first-time director, handles his actors with skill and has a real flair for comedy. But Backbeat also feels lightweight, not a landmark movie - it betrays its long genesis and many rewrites (see the report in this month's Premiere magazine) in an overpacked and unfocussed script, so often the weakness of Palace's previous productions. It sets many hares running, but returns with an empty bag. You come out smiling, but also mildly shrugging, 'so what?'

The film's notional centre is Stuart Sutcliffe, the fifth Beatle who left the band during its second trip to Hamburg in 1961. But it's not really about his near brush with fame. To do that, it would need to look more closely at the other Beatle manque: Pete Best, the drummer who was unceremoniously dumped soon after Stu's departure. Pete, though, is the film's flattest, most under-drawn figure: a dork whose sole noteworthy feature is that he never has anything to say.

At one point the story nudges Stu towards a conflict of loyalties between the Beatles and Astrid Kirchherr, the enigmatic German photographer with whom he falls in love: Astrid seems earmarked as the femme fatale who lured her lover from his rightful niche in history. But Stu has no inner conflict about leaving the band; his true passion is painting. And he would have died anyway (of a brain haemorrhage) before the Beatles broke through.

Backbeat buys big into the doomed artist myth. Stu is the James Dean de ses jours; what matter if he can't play guitar for toffee? He more than makes up for that by unfailingly wearing his shades on stage, and looking mean, moody, magnificent. His great contribution is towards the band's hip, sexy image - the film conveniently forgets that in reality this role was played by Best - and everyone keeps commenting on his physical beauty. (It's slightly ironic, by the way, that Backbeat, which celebrates that brief moment when Britain became the pop-culture capital of the world, has to cast Americans in the two key roles: Stu, played by Stephen Dorff, and Sheryl Lee's Astrid. These days, in the movies at least, charisma has moved back to the other side of the Atlantic).

Unfortunately, Stu is also dull. He's the brooding, passive focus of the others' fantasies but dramaturgically a non-starter. Audiences that readily dig the Beatles' music will find it harder to evaluate his abstract-expressionist splurges; even though an end credit assures us that, yes, he was an artist of authentic merit, you have to take it on trust. Somehow his furious bursts of energy and his flirtation with Hamburg's 'exis' (existentialists) irresistibly recall Tony Hancock's no-talent painter in The Rebel (actually made in 1960), posing insufferably as a Paris Bohemian and bicycling over his canvasses in sou'wester and jim-jams.

When the Beatles discover Abroad, in the shape of Hamburg's red-light district, it's a revelation and liberation in several senses. Sex is on offer, obviously, and speed, but also an intellectual, Francocentric culture - Rimbaud and Cocteau. The film underscores the contrast between Cynthia, Lennon's wife-to-be, the provincial girl in the headscarf dreaming of 'the usual things, marriage and kids' and Astrid, the trendy metropolitan blue-stocking. (It is let down a bit here by Lee, Twin Peaks' Laura Palmer: superficially she resembles Kirchherr, but is just a fatal shade plumper in the face and clearer in the eye, a little more the peaches-and-cream prom queen. You don't quite buy her.

John is thoroughly suspicious ('It's all dick]') though his suspicion is mainly class-based: Astrid is rich, riding high on the economic miracle and, John cautions Stu, well out of his league. The Beatles's success was both cause and effect of the British consumer boom and the crumbling of its class system, but the film passes lightly over that, as it does over the way that Lennon himself so dramatically changed his tune - the Stu-Astrid affair is an eerie foreshadowing of his own liaison with another exotic avant-garde artist, Yoko Ono. Backbeat bumbles from moment to moment; it never pulls back to the broader view.

Another hare that gets away is the packaging of the Beatles: the buffing of their rough working-class edges into a suave, consumer-friendly patina. Astrid and her ex-lover Klaus Voorman are credited with creating their image (a bit unfair, this, on Brian Epstein). The music doesn't develop much, though, according to contemporaries in Philip Norman's biography, Shout], the Beatles were still pretty ropey performers. Here, as dubbed (rip-roaringly, by a scratch band of top American musicians), they're ace from start to finish. There's no sense of emerging style.

The musical sequences are also the least successful cinematically. Softley is a energetic but visually unadventurous director (compare Beatbeat with the surreal fizz of Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night), and can't carry off his major stab at a formal flourish. When the Beatles, performing on stage, are frantically intercut with the strippers who precede their act, and with Stu painting in his studio, it's merely flashy and confusing.

If the film is about anything, it is John Lennon - not because he is more famous than Stu, but because he is much the more interesting. The credits claim to 'introduce' Ian Hart in this role, but we have seen him already, and playing Lennon in fact, in Christopher Munch's The Hours and the Times, one of last year's best independent films.

Set a couple of years later it finds Lennon and Brian Epstein in another European city, Barcelona, on a long and, Epstein hopes, amorous weekend. In both films Hart's Lennon is a splendidly complex and magnetic creature: mercurial, caustic, charming and androgenous. In The Hours and the Times he's the quarry and Epstein the suitor. In Backbeat his role is reversed: he's the unrequited lover and Stu the object of desire.

The film pitches him, Stu, Karl and Astrid into a teasing, sexually ambiguous quartet - when Astrid restyles Stu's hair from macho, brilliantined D A into fluffy mop-top, he remarks that she's made him look like Karl. Actually she's made him look more like herself. John angrily refutes suggestions of his 'queerness' but later, after a fight that turns into an emotional embrace, he and Stu come as close as they could probably get to a mutual declaration of love. And, after Stu's death, a scene in his apartment suggests a mystical fusion between the two, a little like that between James Fox and Mick Jagger at the end of Performance. Alas, Backbeat won't, I suspect, ever achieve that film's iconic status. Like Stu, it just misses being great.

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(Photograph omitted)

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