JAIMIE VERNON – ‘BACKBEAT: The Birth of The Beatles’

We live in a very unique time. Pop culture is such a big part of our everyday existence that we are able to watch a rare breed of genius rise and zenith in real time. It’s hard to imagine being there when Bach or Beethoven performed their most celebrated Sonatas and Symphonies for the first. It is so long ago that their stories and their music seem like stuff of myth – we don’t even have recordings…just modern interpretations from the sheet music they left behind.

The Beatles, on the other hand, are still casting long shadows in a world where so many living people saw them, heard them, and met them as that history was being made. The planet has lost entire forests for the printing of books that have told their story. And it’s the same story – over and over and over again with the occasional nuggets of new information. Every aspect of their lives has been scrutinized, analyzed and rationalized. But the majority of those stories begin with band’s drummer Pete Best getting fired in 1962, Ringo Starr being instated behind the kit and the Beatles living out fame and fortune until their implosion in 1970. Then we were handed another decade of solo pursuits, marriages and reunion rumours before the tragic death of John Lennon. Since then there’s been vault cleanings of old Beatles recordings, a Threetles reunion and the death of George Harrison. Currently we’re watching Ringo and Paul McCartney live out their, and our, Golden Years of Beatles history. We are on the cusp of moving from history-in-the-making to legend and myth. Thankfully, history has recorded more of the former and less of the latter. And one of those legendary stories, rarely told and passed off as a quaint lead-up to what became Beatlemania, is the actual birth of The Beatles.

The origin story, ‘Backbeat’, was director Ian Softley’s first movie and was released in 1994 after extensive research and collaboration with Beatle confidantes and friends Astrid Kirchherr, Klaus Voormann and the family of the late Stu Sutcliffe in 1988 and a touched up script by screenwriter Stephen Ward. For those whose Beatles knowledge begins with “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and ends with “The Long & Winding Road” these names might be alien to them. To die-hard Beatles aficionados they are the catalysts in turning a motley group of late 1950’s Teddy Boy leather-clad musical imitators into, arguably, the greatest musical group in the world.

The film received a BAFTA Award nomination (Britain’s equivalent to the Academy Award) and won Softley a London Film Critics’ Circle Award and Empire Magazine award for ‘Best Newcomer’. It was always Softley’s intention to turn the movie into a stage production. It took him 16 years to mount the first run of Backbeat: The Birth of the Beatles’ at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre in Scotland which corrected some complaints about the movie (like Lennon singing “Long Tall City” which he never did). A second production at The Duke of York’s Theatre in London, England began its run in September 2011. The majority of the cast, crew and production staff from the London production has now taken up residence at Toronto’s Royal Alexandra Theatre for a five week run. And what a production it is!

As a monster Beatles fan and having seen Softley’s original 1994 movie I had a general idea of what to expect in terms of how the storyline might unfold. What I wasn’t prepared for was the sheer spectacle of the production and exceptional performances – musically and dramatically. The overview of the production involves the Beatles career and personal battles covering the pre-fame years 1960 through 1963. This was the period that found the five-piece band – John (Andrew Knott), Paul (Daniel Healy), George (Dan Westwick who is the only member of the ‘band’ not from the original London production), Pete Best (Oliver Bennett) and Stu Sutcliffe (Nick Blood) – being shipped to Germany by historically forgotten early manager Allan Williams to play shows in Hamburg’s famed Reeperbahn – a red light district filled with all manner of sex, drugs and Rock and Roll. A house gig rotating with other Liverpool acts at the hands of nightclub proprietor and ball-breaker Bruno Koschmider (Edward Clarke in a light-hearted role requiring parts Barber of Saville, Colonel Klink of ‘Hogan’s Heroes’ and a working vocabulary of German) at the Indra Club on three and six month rotations meant the band had to play seven days a week – sometimes six to eight hours a day. The Beatles are initially offended that they are not starting out at the famed Star Club. “It is called the Star Club, heir Peetles…and you are not stars,” responds Koschmider. The band is also daunted at the thought that they’d have to expand their repertoire beyond the 50 rock and roll classics they’d learned up to that point. But the paycheques, free beer and copious sex encounters were good – the drugs, used to enhance their stage performances, even better. And so, the story begins with a group of green teenaged blue-collar kids with little vision of their own futures having to “Mach Shau” (‘make show’) to impress the underbelly of a post-World War German proletariat.

Well, everyone but bass player Stu Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe wanted to stay in Liverpool, enroll in Liverpool Art College and become a famous painter; A fact that’s played with ample parts James Dean sunglasses-toting cool and geeky teenage hipster angst by a chiseled and suave Nick Blood. John Lennon – a cartoonish imagining featuring his most vile, comic and abrasive Scouse traits by the scene chewing Andrew Knott – had talked Sutcliffe into holding onto his rebel spirit long enough to learn three notes on a bass guitar and cajoling Sutcliffe into leaving his respectable art dream behind for the more unattainable rock star dream that was The Beatles goal of reaching the ‘uppermost of the Poppermost’. Lennon and Sutcliffe, long before Lennon and McCartney, were inseparable buddies. Sutcliffe would follow Lennon to the end of the world. Or Germany as it turned out. But when a young German artist, Klaus Voormann (played with level headed Bohemian panache by Dominic Rouse), becomes ‘the First Beatles fan’, Sutcliffe’s world begins to both crystallize and unravel after falling in love with Voormann’s photographer girlfriend Astrid Kirchherr played by Isabella Calthorpe. Calthorpe, who is unburdened by a musical instrument on stage, elevates the proceedings beyond a story about Five Lads from Liverpool. Because we don’t have any reference point to compare Sutcliffe to his actual character we must assume that Nick Blood portrays a reasonable facsimile of the real man based on anecdotes. With Kirchherr, we are watching her words and her reaction to the events on stage as if Calthorpe is wearing Astrid Kirchherr’s skin – right down to the bastardized German/English dialect and visually stunning exotic appearance.

As one would hope, the musical performances are above par (especially the incredible vocal talents of Daniel Healy as Paul McCartney) despite the fact that the real Beatles started out as barely functioning thrashers at the beginning of their German run. The equipment is authentic for the era, the sound is live and the multi-track audio is crystal clear. Meanwhile, the song choices – almost exclusively non-Beatles cover tunes  from the band’s heavily documented early history (“Johnny B. Goode”, “Long Tall Sally”, “You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me”, et al) – propel the dramatic sub-plot along. But, it soon becomes clear as the production unfolds, with incredibly executed atmosphere and rapid fire set changes, that the music itself acts more and more as a backdrop to the love triangle between Sutcliffe-Kirchherr-Lennon. The love story turns tragically Shakespaerian and The Beatles as a band are relegated to playing second banana in their own story. McCartney attempts to stop it from de-railing the band altogether and manages to pull off a coupe by getting The Beatles a backing gig with crooner Tony Sheridan (Adam Sopp) through legendary German producer/conductor/bandleader Bert Kaempfert (Charles Swift) for a truly amazing and humorous recreation of their floor stomping arrangement of “My Bonnie”.

By the second act, Beatles classics like “P.S. I Love You” and “Love Me Do” –prefaced by a brilliantly comic Lennon-McCartney writing session – are only there as dramatic punctuation to the tension on stage. For those who came for a rock show the last 1/3 of the evening grinds slowly. For those who came for the acting, it’s Stratford upon Angst as Calthorpe, Blood and Knott go 100% Tennessee Williams or, rather, Marlon Brando playing Tennessee Williams. Realistically, it would have been impossible to have framed it any other way. The Beatles lost both Sutcliffe and Pete Best within a year under different circumstances which left a pall over what would become the end of an incredible beginning to one of the most celebrated groups in history. ‘Backbeat’, unfortunately, can’t effectively rebound from the dark corner that the real story has painted them into. Oh, they try really hard with a brilliant recreation of the band’s discovery by manager Brian Epstein (in an accurately terse businessman-like reading by Mark Hammersley who has to deal with the Beatles’ patented snark) at the Cavern Club and The Beatles’ first recording session with George Martin (in a brief turn by ensemble member James Wallace) at Abbey Road studios putting the finishing touches on the ‘Please Please Me’ album. But it lacks the kick and the high octane found in the first act when the band was unfettered and living off adrenaline. To their credit, Softley and co-director David Leveaux are quite self-aware of how the mood of the crowd has been manipulated. Do yourself a favour…do NOT leave after the cast take their bows which some of my friends regrettably did. There is a third act – and it fully restores the feel-good mood started at the beginning of this 2 ½ hour sonic, visual and emotional extravaganza. I guarantee you’ll be dancing out the theatre doors.  Editor’s note: Those attending should be aware that atmospheric smoke and herbal cigarettes are consumed feverishly throughout the evening in an effort to accurately recreate the time period. The language is also strong and not recommended for children under 12.
(**** ½ out of 5) http://www.mirvish.com/shows/backbeat

Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday

Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

Jaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com

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