Iain Softley knew that Backbeat would make for great live theatre long before his original film was complete. ‘To warm the actors up everyday, I got them to perform in front of people. It became a ritual, and more and more people involved in the film would come early to watch. As this energy surrounding the actors began to grow, I realised that the material would work wonderfully on stage.’
Softley’s film told the little-known story of Stuart Sutcliffe, the person many people consider to be ‘the fifth Beatle’. Sutcliffe was John Lennon’s best friend and a member of The Beatles when they went to Hamburg, Germany. He would fall in love with Astrid Kirchherr, a photographer who helped invent The Beatles’ famous look. Sutcliffe faced a difficult decision: stay with the woman he loves or remain in a band that many believed were on the cusp of world stardom.
When looking for inspiration for a film, Softley says that he wanted to tell a story about the mix of Art and Rock ‘n’ Roll. He learned about Astrid and Stu’s story, and after exhaustive research realised that they were not only a perfect example of his goal theme but that their story was also ‘much bigger, more creative and significant than previously given credit for.’
He explored the possibility of making the story into a stage production soon after the film was released in 1994. However, he faced a problem he hadn’t anticipated: PolyGram, the studio that produced his film, had been sold off. He spent years with his lawyer trying to track down the new owner of the film’s rights. It was while working at American film company Universal that he discovered that they themselves held the rights. Happy with the work he was doing, Universal gave Softley their blessing for him to stage Backbeat.
Rather than just using the film’s script, Softley decided to rework the play. He was granted access to new material from both Sutcliffe’s family and Astrid herself, a person Softley now considers a personal friend. He also wanted the play ‘to be the star’ and not a flash-in-the-pan West End production that starred a TV personality. To achieve this, it was important to Softley and the producers to find a theatre that would commission the play as a new work; they found such needed support from the Citizens in Glasgow.
Softley has managed to put together an impressive creative team to bring Backbeat to the stage. The production is being designed by respected artists and is filled with well-regarded up-and-coming actors, including Andrew Knott, who blew everyone away during a staged reading in the pivotal role of John Lennon.
But it’s the use of live music that has Softley really excited, an element he calls ‘a significant plus’. Unlike the film, which used a pre-recorded track that the actors mimed to (very well—Softley added), the actors will be performing live. To assist in this, Softley called in Paul Stacey, a highly regarded guitarist and producer who has worked with such talents as Oasis and The Black Crowes. Though many consider The Beatles to have a nice aura about their music, they originally had a far edgier, more punk-like vibe, a feeling that Softley claims some called ‘an assault on the senses.’
Softley says that Backbeat, ‘Is not really about The Beatles. It’s a new story that uses the material of these people’s lives. It looks at what young people go through when trying to figure out their identity and place in life. It’s as important today as when it happened.’
It is that sense of immediacy that Softley will be attempting to achieve with his production. The Beatles may now be considered by many to be Britain’s best cultural export of the 20th Century, but they were once young aspiring artists who had a dream and were filled with uncertainty, an uncertainty of not only who they were but of what they were to become.
Originally written for The Skinny. An abridged version appears in the February edition.
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