The mystic of The Beatles, Liverpool’s most famous Fab Four, is a story that continues to intrigue classic rock & roll enthusiasts worldwide. The story of the rock band’s origin is inextricably bound with the inclusion and eventual loss of the elusive fifth Beatle. These two stories are explored in the latest production at Los Angeles’ Ahmanson Theatre, Backbeat: The Birth of the Beatles. Based on the 1994 film from Universal Studios, written by Iain Softley, Michael Thomas and Stephen Ward, this Glasgow Citizens Theatre production is a hodge-podge of rock concert, coming of age comedy and intensely gripping bio drama, recounting the rock road into musical history.
Stuart Sutcliffe (Nick Blood) is an artist. He is a gifted abstract painter on the fast track to success and the darling of his instructors. Nevertheless his is ease lured into becoming a bass player for the band started by his childhood John Lennon (Andrew Knott). Despite his not knowing a thing about playing an instrument, John shoehorns Stuart into a position in the band where band mates Paul McCartney (Daniel Healy), George Harrison (Daniel Westwick) and Pete Best (Oliver Bennett) reluctantly accept him. Just when Paul decides to confront John about Stuart’s arguably limited contribution of a coolness quotient to the group, John lands the group a steady gig in Hamburg.
The grind of working insane hours in a hole in the wall dive, in a not so reputable part of Hamburg, is worth enduring for the fifth kids who want nothing more than to play music, especially since the owner is willing to ignore that George is under aged. The group eventually acquire a following, among which is a German photographer named Astrid (Leanne Best). Astrid would be the first time the “Yoko Ono factor” is introduced to the group when Stuart becomes immediately smitten by her. They are kindred spirits in the world of visual art and Stuart becomes more and more pulled back into the world of art, neglecting the group. Paul the most serious minded of the group, works diligently writing music and trying to get the group better paying, more prestigious gigs as his resentment towards Stuart grow, leaving John in the middle: torn between his love for his friend and his love and dreams of success for the band.
Ultimately, this show is pretty uneven. The eventual descent into seriousness pretty much grinds the entire show to a halt. And while this is not a musical, but rather a show with music in it, in terms of the narrative pacing, the weighty drama makes for a pretty lopsided production. Perhaps I was looking for some personal, poignant and lasting effect that Sutcliffe himself has on the group that would make me feel watching his journey was ultimately satisfying, if any. There is no getting around the facts of his life and death, but feeling his impact in The Beatles , beyond John Lennon, was certainly worth illuminating a bit more.
Backbeat is a great production for the enduring fandom of The Beatles. It is the story of a band on the cusp of greatness, if only they can keep from imploding first. History tells us that the band survived long enough to achieve greatness, albeit not for the fifth member Stuart Sutcliffe. The musical numbers were all quite fun and energetic, although a bit loud for my taste. The light projection design was both nostalgic and pretty spectacular in its interactive quality with the actor on stage.
Backbeat: The Birth of the Beatles is running now through March 1, 2012 @:
135 N. Grand Avenue
Downtown Los Angeles
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Photos by Craig Schwatrz