‘Backbeat’: Film to Stage Adaptation, Lost in Translation

By Ramona Pilar Gonzales

Backbeat Production Photo 1_web

Here in Los Angeles we take our cultural icons very seriously. As well we should. Our largest export is myth and illusion. We absolutely understand the influence and impact that artistic and cultural legends have on individual psyches.  They become the means by which we mark pivotal moments in our own personal Hero’s Journeys.  These people – movement builders, peacemakers, and more recently, celebrities – transcend their human state and become symbols representing the best that humanity has to offer. We become so invested in these people that we have physical and emotional responses if we meet them, when we see them from afar, and even when they die.

Director Iain Softley took on that challenge in his 1994 film Backbeat wherein he told the story of a pre-Ringo Beatles playing dive bars and clubs in Hamburg, Germany.  Adapted for the stage by Softley, the musical version of the film arrives to the Ahmanson Theater directly from its run at The Duke of York’s Theater in London’s West End.  The story focuses, not on the power duo of Lennon-McCartney, but on John Lennon and his best friend, the Beatles first bass player, Stuart Suttcliffe.  “Stu” is a “brilliant” art student with a promising future when Lennon convinces him to pick up the bass and join his band for a residency in Germany. The lure? “20 quid a week!”

From there we follow them to Hamburg and are treated to an appropriately theatrical glimpse of the young band’s first days: what it’s like to play your heart out for a two person audience; to sleep behind a movie theater screen; and the less-than-romantic deflowering of a 16 year old George Harrison.  Director David Levaux, along with Designer Andrew D. Edwards (from an original concept by Christopher Oram) do a great job of setting the ambience of the bare-bones, minimalist surroundings – when you’re a poor, starving, immigrant artist-type, there’s not a lot of money left over for furniture or foofaraw. The visible scaffolding adds to the raw, pre-”image” tone of the production.

Stu (Nick Blood) can barely play, yet he is sunglassed and aloof, a living definition of 1950s cool.  Andrew Knott’s John Lennon preens and struts with a wonderfully cocky bravado that belies nothing of the champion for peace he would become. Their friendship is the basis for one of the story’s main conflicts: John, driven to pursue his dream of rock n’ roll stardom wants Stu to come along for the ride. Stu, far better at painting than he is at playing bass, feels the pull of success in the art world, but is energized by the thrill of playing on stage.

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And then, the girl shows up.

The original film was written by Softley based on interviews with Astrid Kircherr (along with Klaus Voormann), a photographer who met and fell in love with Sutcliffe during the Beatles’ time in Hamburg. As such, the heavy lifting of this production is assigned to the love story between Kircherr and Sutcliffe and the conflict it creates between Sutcliffe and Lennon, and the rest of the band.

Unfortunately, the story, as written and performed, doesn’t hold up to the weight of the expectations of the show.  The “importance” of that particular moment in rock history was stated in the dialogue, and overstated in some of the performances, but not dramatically earned.  It’s as though the writers, director and therefore, some of the actors were fixated on the iconographic status of characters rather than playing them as characters and treating them like living breathing human beings. They were trying to play the icon rather than the person. Leanne Best’s Astrid embodied this tendency more than any of the other characters. Every line read telegraphed its importance.  Understandably, it’s a huge responsibility to play the role of a person who is still alive.  The reverence for Kircherr and her story was absolutely evident. However, that reverence weighed down her performance, which rode the line of melodrama a little too closely.

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The early Beatles – Knott, Daniel Healy (as Paul McCartney), Dan Westwick (adorable as George Harrison) and Oliver Bennet (as ousted drummer Pete Best) – when they played, were absolutely fun. But to hearken back to expectations, when one goes to see a musical, one expects a bit of music. The Beatles were more of a cover band early on (as most bands are), and, understandably, those songs were missing from the musical, as they hadn’t yet been written. Nevertheless, the five actors were fantastic, energetic musicans, and it would have been great to see and hear more of them and those early tunes acknowledging their R&B roots.

The most intriguing thing about this period in their lives was that John, Paul, George, Stu and Pete were just kids, 16-21 years old, illegally squatting in a divey movie theater, living off of scraps and fueled by a dream. They may have had the inclination that Music was changing. They may have felt that they were going to be a part of something big, but who doesn’t think they’re going to change the world at that age? The thing is, they didn’t know they were legends. Even after wailing girls started chasing them all over the place, they still didn’t know they were legends. They were baffled, as were a lot of people. They poked fun at their own fame and knew it to be as outrageous and surreal as any icon worship is.

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L-R, Pete Best, George Harrison, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Stuart Sutcliffe. Photo by Astrid Kircherr.

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Written by Iain Softley and Stephen Jeffreys, adapted from the Universal Pictures film written by Softley, Michael Thomas and Stephen Ward

Directed by David Leveaux, from Iain Softley’s production for Glasgow Citizens Theatre

January 20, 2013 – March 1, 2013

Ahmanson Theater
601 W Temple St.
Los Angeles, CA 90012

Tickets and production info available here.