NEW YORK — A DEFINITIVE movie about the Beatles has yet to be made, but the early years of the all-time-greatest rock group have drawn the attention of more than one filmmaker. ``Backbeat,'' directed by newcomer Iain Softley, comes soon after ``The Hours and Times,'' in which Christopher Munch explored the complex relationship between John Lennon and Brian Epstein, the band's first manager.
``Backbeat'' is more conventional and commercial than Munch's offbeat character study, but it follows some of the same patterns. Again the story focuses mainly on Lennon, playing down the dynamics of the Beatles as a group. And again the film's intention is to study Lennon's personality as revealed through encounters with a colleague who's at once a friend, a rival, and something of an enigma to everyone around him.
The colleague in ``Backbeat'' is Stuart Sutcliffe, who became the first bass guitarist of the Beatles despite a total lack of the extraordinary talent that exploded from Paul McCartney and George Harrison as well as Lennon himself. Sutcliffe's place in the group is further complicated by his indecision over what career to follow - painting, which he's loved all his life, or music, which he finds more exciting, sociable, and just plain fun.
His overdose of career ambivalence and underdose of musical skill drives the other Beatles crazy. But his friendship with Lennon guarantees him a berth in the band as long as he cares to stay, and he enjoys many aspects of the rock-and-roll life.
This includes the chance to meet adoring fans, such as an intelligent young photographer named Astrid Kirchherr, who takes a strong liking to the Beatles in general and to Sutcliife in particular. Their acquaintance blossoms into romance, adding new uncertainty to Sutcliffe's future and new tension to his relationship with Lennon, who greets the love affair with a mixture of acceptance, jealousy, and resentment. This emotional ambivalence persists when Sutcliffe starts encountering the health problems that led to his untimely death in 1962.
``Backbeat'' is more worldly than the best bio-pics to emerge from the rock-and-roll scene over the years, such as ``The Buddy Holly Story'' and ``La Bamba,'' which reflected the fresh-faced 1950s as accurately as this film reflects the sensation-hungry '60s. The sexual escapades of the Beatles get plenty of on-screen attention, some of it quite explicit, and even the story's calmer interludes are interspersed with scenes of drinking, carousing, and brash behavior.
At its core, however, the movie seems serious in its fascination with the Beatles and sincere in its curiosity about what made the group tick during its early and most formative years. While no great insights emerge, the film paints a credible portrait not only of the band's superstar members (the final constituent, Ringo Starr, eventually arrives to replace Pete Best, the group's original drummer), but also of a likable guy (Sutcliffe) who almost had a shot at superstardom, but passed it up for reasons that will be discussed and debated as long as rock history endures.
Ian Hart and Stephen Dorff give solid performances as Lennon and Sutcliffe, respectively, although they're such similar types that it's sometimes hard to remember which actor is playing which part. Sheryl Lee is just right as Kirchherr and German actor Kai Weisinger is well cast as Klaus Voorman, an intellectual boyfriend of Kirchherr, who became an early Beatles supporter.
Directing the action from a screenplay he wrote with Michael Thomas and Stephen Ward, filmmaker Softley keeps the pace reasonably quick and the images reasonably absorbing. Ian Wilson did the cinematography, which combines quiet professionalism with the rough-and-ready atmosphere of the story's time and place.
* ``Backbeat'' has an R rating. It contains scenes of nudity, sex, intoxication, and illness.