Friday, February 23, 2007

Movies: The fifth Beatle and the tower of Babel

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting• Been on a bit of a Beatles kick lately (it's required to go through one once a year or so if you often blog about music), and so I revisited the 1994 biopic of their early days, "Backbeat," the other night. Hadn't seen it in years and was surprised by how much I enjoyed anew this take on the Beatles' early Hamburg, pre-fame days, when there were five Beatles and Ringo wasn't in the picture yet. The flick focuses pretty much on John Lennon (Ian Hart) and bass player Stuart Sutcliffe (Stephen Dorff) and their complicated friendship as the struggling Beatles play in assorted Hamburg strip joints and dives trying to get a foothold in the music biz. "Backbeat" has a keen eye for debunking the "moptop cute Beatles" image. It nicely depicts the grime and grit of those early, speed-fueled Beatle years, when they were more punk than pop in their assault, having to play six, seven, eight-hour gigs in something closely resembling indentured servitude. The inhuman work load, terrible living conditions and stress was the fire that forged the Beatles from amicable band into something that would become legendary. "Backbeat" pulses with a cool energy as it romps along these early days. The soundtrack doesn't feature a single Lennon/McCartney tune, focusing on the rock and R&B covers the Beatles made their early name with. "Backbeat" captures the vibe of the early Beatles beautifully (even if it gets a bit too many winks in to the band's famous future - "we're gonna be too big for our own bloody good," Lennon says at one point).

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingMore than a decade after "Backbeat's" release, Ian Hart's performance as the angry, bitter young Lennon is still remarkable to watch – without precisely imitating Lennon, he effortlessly evokes him. Dorff's Sutcliffe is easier to play — because how many people really know what Stuart Sutcliffe was like now? — but it's also a fine acting turn, as is the gorgeous Sheryl Lee of "Twin Peaks" fame as seductive German photographer Astrid Kirchherr. Sutcliffe's sad fate in history is well known - a dispensable fifth bandmate whose bass playing was never spectacular, he was in it for a lark. Stu left the band amicably before they became stars, returning to his first love in art. But then he died not long after at the terribly young age of 21 of a cerebral hemorrhage. He's one of these vaguely haunting figures lurking at the edges of the Beatles' history, whose short life makes him seem mysterious and cool in a doomed way (an attribute "Backbeat" diligently exploits). Yet by age 21, the man was a very promising young artist, had a glorious adventure in Germany and fell in love with a girl, and became a Beatle. There are worse epitaphs.

(Photo of Lennon and Sutcliffe (C) Astrid Kirchherr. A marvelous selection of her iconic Beatles shots can be seen at this site.)

• So last weekend I had a Peter-free day and took in "Babel," in an effort to see more than one of the best picture nominees before this Sunday's Oscars. It was a quality flick, but lacking the focus to make it worthy of being best picture, in my mind. It's like a globalized version of "Crash" – bad things happening to insulated or ignorant folks for two hours in loosely intertwining stories, told with skill and some fine acting, but something crucial missing in the mix. The main problem I had with "Babel" is that I could feel the writer's hand in almost every scene – you shouldn't be able to see the strings that easily on the puppets. Little of it felt unforced, save perhaps the Japanese girl's storyline, which almost belonged in an entirely different movie. Brad Pitt is excellent in a supporting role, and there's several incredibly tense, powerfully presented sequences throughout this harrowing movie. It's not a terrible movie by any means, but being nominated for several Oscars including Best Picture gets your expectations pretty high. Director Alejandro Iñárritu's crazy-quilt storytelling style seems to be a hit with many critics, but I find it often simplistic. (His last movie, "21 Grams," was melodramatic and insincere.) "Babel" feels like a picture aching to impress you with its profound insight.

• Good luck to our friend Erin and her partner Val, who have left Auckland on several months of global travel before ending up in Vancouver, Canada, and are blogging about their adventures here. Go read - they're way more exciting than my blog!

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