Words & interview

Michael Leader


Iain Softley: ‘I had this idea in my mind, “What would the story be if these weren’t The Beatles?”’

As Sam Mendes gears up to make his behemoth Beatles biopic, the director of 1994 early-Beatles drama Backbeat reflects on the story of Stuart Sutcliffe – the Beatle who wasn't.

Back in 1994, Backbeat told a Beatles story with a difference, focusing on the band’s early days gigging in Hamburg dive bars, and homing in on their pre-fame bassist, Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff), his romance with German photographer Astrid Kirchherr (Sheryl Lee), and his strained friendship with bandleader John Lennon (Ian Hart).

Adding a twist and shout to the traditional music biopic, the film plays as a vividly drawn bildungsroman, with five working-class Liverpudlians let loose in a city where raucous rock and roll clashed with a sophisticated European art scene. At the heart of it all was Stuart, torn between the two, and forever enshrined in a state of youthful promise and potential due to his tragic death in 1962, mere months before his former bandmates released their first single, ‘Love Me Do’.

Now, on the cusp of a special 30th-anniversary screening, writer and director Iain Softley (Hackers, The Skeleton Key) reflects on making his feature debut, wrestling with characters both iconic and unheralded, and the part Backbeat played in a classic Britpop anthem.

LWLies: Take us right back to the beginning. Where did Backbeat start for you?

Softley: I was looking for a film to make when I was at Granada Television. I just saw a photograph of these two people: Stuart Sutcliffe and Astrid Kirchherr. Maybe I was vaguely aware of them, but not really. This would have been in the mid-’80s, but it looked so contemporary, so modern. These people looked ahead of their time. And I wanted to find out more about them. And I was surprised, the further I looked, that nobody had really done this before.

I didn’t have a directing credit, I didn’t have anything. I just knew I wanted to make this film. So I started out looking through the phone book and went through all the Sutcliffes, knowing that Stuart’s mum then was living in Sevenoaks. She gave me the number that Astrid Kirchherr had when she got married to somebody after Stuart sadly died. And I caught up with this guy and he was like, “Well, I haven’t been married to Astrid for ages, but I think she works in this bar in Hamburg, near the Alster river.” So I called some bars… and she was the manageress. I could tell that she’d had people contacting her, just wanting a quote, or wanting some salacious gossip about The Beatles, and not really interested in her story. And she said, “I don’t want to talk too much now, but if you’re ever in Hamburg, look me up…” So I went to Hamburg the next week. I phoned her and said, “I’m here.”

We chatted and got on really well. And she said, “Why don’t you come over and we’ll talk at a greater length?” And I went over the next evening, and Klaus Voormann was there. And they just talked and talked and talked, all night. Eventually, when we got close to being on the verge of making the film, I stayed with Klaus, and Astrid was staying with him at the time, so I spent about six days just doing interviews with Astrid, and Klaus would occasionally sort of drop in really as a favour to Astrid. And those transcripts were one of the cornerstones of me writing the script.

Where did The Beatles sit in the culture at the time? Were you a fan?

I think they weren’t that prominent in the culture, generally. And they weren’t that prominent with me either. I grew up in London, and I can remember when I was very young, early primary school years when The Beatles first emerged and it kind of affected everything and everybody. And then our dad got us ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ because he read a good review of it in some newspaper, so it was okay to have it in the house. And they kind of became a little bit conventional. I was moving on in terms of my music tastes.

But then I was working at Granada Television when John Lennon was shot. And everybody was called on to work on the documentary, pulling stuff together. And I spent the whole day looking through the Granada Television Beatles archive. I had this idea that there were edgier characters there. And, of course, in Hamburg, they were just this working-class band, who got into scrapes and grew up very, very quickly.

But I wanted that to be the backdrop to my story, which is one of the reasons it’s called Backbeat. It’s the backbeat of the story that originally got me interested, this kind of love triangle in a way between Astrid, John and Stuart. I was sort of almost seeing in my mind, what would the story be if these weren’t The Beatles? It’s a story about young people, and particularly three young people who are working out what to do with their lives on an emotional, personal and creative level.

Backbeat dramatises this pivotal moment in pop history, but also this almost evergreen theme when it comes to British pop culture, a push and pull between America and Europe. In this case, between rock and roll and Astrid’s world of Edith Piaf, Arthur Rimbaud and Jean Cocteau…

What happened in Hamburg is that those two things came together, and they incorporated them and that’s what made The Beatles distinct and important, along with their talent of course as amazing songwriters. But it was that openness to ideas and that openness to art.

When that post-war generation emerged, there was opportunity, because the slate had been wiped clean. It was a new world. I think of the welfare state, not just in terms of health, but in terms of education. The education that these working-class guys had was amazing, they were really well read, really knowledgeable about culture. They were into American music from the beginning, from the seamen bringing R&B and black music to Liverpool. But also through film: James Dean, Rebel Without a Cause, that whole idea. They were getting access to the Beat Generation through books and through films. And so it was an incredibly stimulating time. I don’t think it was an accident, there was this explosion of interest in culture, counterculture, and creativity.

But at the centre of it was this choice that Stuart had to make between his best friend and being in a rock and roll band, which he loved, and this completely new environment, in a foreign country, with a girl that he loved, and what was his overriding passion: painting. And he chose the latter, and we could say that if he’d stayed he would have been famous and everything. But I think the point of the film is that he made the right choice because it’s what he wanted to do.

What was your approach to the casting? On the one hand, you have some of the most recognisable figures in 20th-century history, on the other, you have Stuart and Astrid, our protagonists, who we don’t know.

My starting point for the casting was I didn’t want lookalikes. I didn’t want a Madame Tussauds version. I liked this idea that we could almost at times forget that the characters were The Beatles.

At the time, Stephen Dorff wasn’t that well known, but he was better known than anybody else in the cast, other than maybe Sheryl Lee, who obviously was well known because of Twin Peaks. The fact that they were kind of like movie stars was, I think, a nice inversion. And so we have the lesser-known Ian Hart as John Lennon, one of the most important cultural idols of the last 100 years, who is looking up to them both.

People who knew John at that time said that there was an anger in him when he was younger, which he worked out as he got older. He was very short-sighted, he was quite self-conscious about that. And he was a little bit insecure, particularly in the face of the sophisticated Europeans. So there’s that edge there. And Ian was just perfect. When I met Ian, I thought, he’s just got that energy and that edge, and he could play the vulnerability, which John has in our film.

There’s an unexpected twist with the music, too, with an American supergroup of punk and alt-rock musicians performing the songs The Beatles would have covered on stage in Hamburg.

First of all, I said that I didn’t want it to sound like The Beatles. Astrid and Klaus said, if you heard them today, you would think they were a contemporary band. It was like half-punk, half-dance music, half-rave. And so, we didn’t want people trying to copy The Beatles. We just wanted people with that attitude. And I think it was Bob Last, our music supervisor, who said the way to do that is to get a producer that these great people would want to play with. So we approached Don Was, and also asked him to do the score, which was a big appeal for him. And he approached Dave Grohl, who was in Nirvana at the time, and Mike Mills from REM, Thurston Moore from Sonic Youth, and we also had Greg Dulli from Afghan Whigs and Henry Rollins, too.

That soundtrack still holds up now, but with the benefit of hindsight, it’s surprising to hear such an American flavour in the music, with the rise of Britpop just around the corner.

Well, we shot in 1993. We opened Sundance in January 1994. And by the end of 1994, I was making Hackers. And I knew I wanted a dance music soundtrack for that. We had Massive Attack, Leftfield, Underworld, The Prodigy. Nobody had put that in a movie before. I think Trainspotting was made about nine months after us. And it was the reverse, because the record companies wanted a grunge soundtrack on Hackers. But that was an American film, American story, with a British soundtrack. So we got it because it was just what was right for the film. And so it was really the same approach for Backbeat. It was who was right. And at that time, the bands that were sounding like that sort of guitar music were the American grunge bands.

Going back to Britpop, I’ve always wondered if that line “Backbeat, the word is on the street…” from ‘Wonderwall’ was a reference to this film. Do you know if Noel Gallagher saw the film?

He did. He loved Ian Hart in it. I met Noel a few times, and the first time I actually talked to him, I said, “I directed Backbeat, is that line, you know…?” And he said, “Yeah, it’s a reference to your film!” Looking back now, he might have just said that because he thought that it was what I wanted to hear, and it certainly was what I wanted to hear. I won’t hold him to it, but he definitely said it to me!

Were you worried about what the real-life people behind your characters would think of the film?

The important thing for me was that Astrid was very apprehensive, and we wanted to get her approval. So she came over to London and I showed it to her at a screening, just me and her. I sat next to her during the screening, and kind of wished I hadn’t. I was feeling every single response that she had. And at the end of the film, she stayed right to the end of the credits, and she didn’t say anything. So we’re both looking at this black screen, and I’m thinking, “Oh my God…” And then she turned to me, and she had tears in her eyes, and she hugged me.

Backbeat screens in London at Picturehouse Central on 14 June 2024, followed by a post-screening Q&A with Iain Softley and further guests TBC.

Published 12 Jun 2024

Tags: Backbeat Iain Softley The Beatles

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