Backbeat/The Birth of the Beatles/book by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys/directed by David Leveaux/from Iain Softley's production for Glasgow Citizens Theatre/Ahmanson/through March 1
Based on the 1994 film, the Glasgow/UK stage version of Backbeat is making its US premiere at the Ahmanson with all the fire, guts and gusto that engender a genuinely moving dramatic story. This is not a musical, but a drama with music. Let's face it: the Beatles more than any other musical group in history changed our outlook ...and our entire culture. We not only listened to their music, but copied their haircuts, their dress, their attitude and came into sync with every move they made, some good, some bad. For those unfamiliar with how they got started, it was not really in Liverpool, but in a sleazy underground club in Hamburg. Germany in the early 60s. Backbeat fills in these background details, but much more than a docudrama, relates a powerful story about John, Paul, George, Pete Best - drummer before Ringo (Adam Sopp) - and more importantly Stu Sutcliffe (Nick Blood). Stu was an intimate artist friend of John. John literally forced Stu into the group in the early days and so his story rightfully commands as much attention in Backbeat as the legendary boys themselves. Stu's story is sad. He, unlike the others, got cheated of fame and glory.
Backbeat looks at both sides of living. Its drama is created from life and death, frustration, anger, desperation and overwhelming failure as well as success. When John Lennon (Andrew Knott) brings Stu into the group, it is to the dismay of Paul (Daniel Healy), George (Daniel Westwick) and Pete Best (Oliver Bennett), as Stu has no musical talent, he cannot even play the guitar. The relationship between Stu and John is a tight one from the start, but just how close they are is shrouded in mystery. After playing months in deplorable conditions, six hours a night in the underground Hamburg club with sex, prostitutes and drugs as openly available as in a brothel, Stu is introduced to a new fan, pretty German photographer Astrid (Leanne Best) and sparks immediately fly. Stu's own desire to pursue art classes, his deeply evolving love for Astrid, and his love for John, his main reason for being a Beatle, all come into conflict. In the meantime, the Beatles are playing other people's music, with merely a glimmer of their own unique style that eventually put them at the top. Personal struggles and group power struggles with Brian Epstein (Mark Hammersley) and others show a realistically downtrodden yet fascinating portrait of these days that were heretofore left unexplored.
The entire acting ensemble is super. Standout Blood is electric as the crude yet honest Stu Sutcliffe with the James Dean looks, so tortured within his art and with his personal affliction. His phenomenal love scenes with Best are brutally passionate. Best is a stunner as Astrid, the caring soul who acts as go-between with Stu and John. Knott is equally dynamic as the workaholic, in his desperate pursuit for the group's success, all the while concealing his real feelings for Stu, until the bitter end. Praise to all those remaining in the 19-member cast, who, under David Leveaux's meticulously slick and coherent direction and fluid theatrical staging, work brilliance, many called upon to play more than one role.
Backbeat is not a reenacted collection of the Beatles' greatest hits as is the revue Rain. It is, as I mentioned earlier, a drama with music, and as such incorporates all music from the early sixties that the Beatles sang, mostly songs that were recorded by other artists. Highlights include: "Johnny Be Good", "Good Golly Miss Molly", "A Taste of Honey", "That Happy Feeling", "Twist and Shout", "My Bonnie" and also their first hits "PS I Love You" and "Love Me Do". One scene where the latter is being created by John and Paul is tingling to watch, especially for fans like me who grew up with Beatles' music.