Vis-à-Vis: Nowhere Boy & Backbeat

(Here’s another kind of “Vis-à-Vis” entry where instead of juxtaposing movies that seem mostly different from one another, I bring up companion pieces that are more logically connected. There still may be plenty of SPOILERS.)

Before today, it had been years since I’d seen Backbeat (1994) – I recall my parents borrowing it on VHS from the library. But even without having seen it in forever, I knew by the end of Nowhere Boy that the two, details aside, would make a natural pair.

Nowhere Boy, which centers on John Lennon’s adolescence and young adulthood, culminates with his telling his aunt Mimi that the band is headed to Hamburg for a few months. He leaves her house – not suitcase in hand, or anything like that – but more to say that he was leaving the trappings of his childhood behind (the emotions of it lasting far longer). He has already mentioned going to art school and begins to wear black, sideburns heavier, hair a little higher.

Backbeat picks up the chronology almost seamlessly. There is a slight overlap to introduce John and Stuart Sutcliffe as pals and to let us know that Stu has a great deal of artistic talent. We meet the rest of the band at the dock as they’re headed to Hamburg. Here, if we’re being sticklers for truly combining the two movies, we hear (again) certain biographical notes, that John’s father was a sailor, as was his father’s father. I’d guess that Paul knew this fact already. And when that point is played for a laugh a scene later, when John gets motion sickness, the knowledge about John’s relationship with his parents as gleaned from Nowhere Boy creates a difference in tone that takes a little getting used to. But as Backbeat is about John really as he relates to Stu, I understand the necessity to highlight John’s sense of humor as it masks his vulnerability and his fundamental desire for camaraderie with Stu, points that get their due later in the movie.

Nowhere Boy seems the more authentic of the two, at least because of the original compositions we hear. The recording session that features “In Spite of All the Danger” is historic – while the scene is played for personal dramatic effect even more than its importance to the group, that it’s the genuine song is a wonderful inclusion that I took for granted until rewatching Backbeat. We hear plenty of cover songs, as the Beatles certainly played many of them in their many hours of Hamburg performances (so I’ve read), but we don’t hear any originals. It’s a rights/cost issue, I’m sure, and while Backbeat shouldn’t truly be faulted for that, Nowhere Boy does get a tip of my hat for the accomplishment.

One observation otherwise without a home about the music: The bass we hear played ostensibly by Stu is pretty spot-on, contradicting all other indications that he wasn’t a very good bass player. It probably would have been too conspicuous on the soundtrack – why mar an otherwise solid recording? Ironic in this case, then, that accurate notes don’t ring true for me.

Now, the age thing: Stephen Dorff was 19 when he played Stu Sutcliffe in Backbeat. Ian Hart, who plays John (before ultimately playing Professor Quirrell in the first Harry Potter movie), was 28. That’s just younger than I am now, and as I keep realizing more and more, the Beatles were nearly children when they were in Hamburg (George literally, sneaking in at 17). Much was expected and much delivered by Dorff in a starring role. Hart does a commendable job playing all sides of John, but I wonder what a younger actor might have done with role. For one thing, we might have seen John’s jealousy differently, seeing more clearly its roots in immaturity and insecurity than focusing on the bitterness and anger on the surface. And alongside Nowhere Boy, we’d have an even deeper understanding, perhaps, of his desire for closeness and his distaste for abandonment.

I haven’t reviewed Backbeat separately, but quickly I’d rate it just a notch below Nowhere Boy, at 2.5 stars/4 (B-). No matter the rating, I’m fond of both of these movies for the important biographical ground they cover, for the emotions they stir, and for capturing in whatever proportion the energy of my favorite band in their youth.

(You can find my original review of Nowhere Boy (2009) here.)

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