"The pictures just jumped out of the page at me," Softley recalls. "I looked at photos by Astrid of herself and Stuart. . . . Something about them was so focused, charismatic and attractive. The photos still wouldn't look out of place in a current style magazine."
Sutcliffe, who attended art school in Liverpool with John Lennon, his closest friend, played with the Beatles for three years before their stratospheric rise to fame. (Paul McCartney was then a guitarist.) He quit the group in Hamburg and remained there to pursue a life as an artist. His talent as an abstract painter was evident, but a brain hemorrhage in April 1962, just before his 22d birthday, cut his life short.
Softley was convinced there was a film in Sutcliffe's life. After writing a script outline, he got a small amount of funding to pay his way to Hamburg to interview Kirchherr and others who were around in those days.
He shopped the story around for several years, making music videos in the interim, but as an unknown director he found it hard to raise interest. Eventually he won over Steve Woolley, one of the producers behind The Crying Game. Now Softley's mission has become a reality: His film Backbeat, shot in London, Hamburg and Liverpool, is playing in cities throughout the United States, including Philadelphia.
Backbeat traces the story of the young, unknown Beatles as they set off
from Liverpool to Hamburg, a city of sex, drugs and rock and roll where they encountered a wilder life than anything they had known. But the backbone of the film is the relationship between Sutcliffe, Kirchherr and Lennon, and the pressures that led Sutcliffe to quit the group.
Casting took place mainly in Liverpool. Chris O'Neill and Gary Bakewell look amazingly like George Harrison and Paul McCartney did at the time. And Ian Hart - who bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Lennon - had already played the Beatle in the film The Hours and Times, a fictional account of Lennon on vacation in Spain with Beatles manager Brian Epstein. As for Ringo Starr, who is seen only fleetingly in Backbeat, he joined the Beatles after their Hamburg period.
Two American actors take lead roles. Stephen Dorff (The Power of One) plays Sutcliffe with an impressively authentic Liverpool accent, and Sheryl Lee, best-known as the ill-fated Laura Palmer on Twin Peaks, is Kirchherr.
Stuart Sutcliffe's influence on the Beatles is now generally thought to have been underestimated.
When in Hamburg, Sutcliffe was drawn to a group of young avant-garde German art students, of which Kirchherr was a member. They called themselves Exis, short for existentialists, and they had distinctive dress and hairstyles. The Beatles freely mixed with the Exis and, under their influence, came to think of themselves not merely as a pop group, but as artists working within the field of pop music.
Kirchherr says of the Exis: "You expressed yourself by looking different
from other people. . . . We always wore black. The minimum of color would be a white shirt. It was black polo neck sweaters (which the Beatles wore on the cover of their album Meet the Beatles)and tight black trousers. We had this hairstyle with the hair brushed forward, which we called the Exicut."
"Astrid gave Stuart an Exicut, with his hair brushed forward," Softley says. "It was the first Beatles cut, she dressed him in collarless jackets and flamenco boots, which surfaced in how the Beatles looked when they became famous. Only Stuart had the (guts) to try out the haircut. The others weren't so keen. Then George cut his hair that way. Later John and Paul got their haircuts on a trip to Paris.
"The Beatles met Astrid and her friends in Hamburg and saw the life they led and the way they were living their art," Softley says. "It was a big influence on how the Beatles thought about themselves. Astrid took pictures of them and told them to use icons of themselves to help their music. The way they wore their hair, the clothes they wore, the fact that they could use contemporary artists to package their albums - these things became important. And for the Beatles, Hamburg became a kind of mythological place where all these seeds were sown."
Sutcliffe joined the embryonic Beatles in 1958. His skills as a musician were rudimentary, but as a student at Liverpool Art School he sold a painting to a local business tycoon and bought a guitar.
"You have to ask why they would take someone into their group who was not a musician and did not even have their beginning skills," says Pauline Sutcliffe, Stuart's younger sister, executor of his estate and a consultant for Backbeat. She muses on this in her elegant London apartment, which is filled with her brother's paintings. She believes Lennon was the decisive influence, but Stuart was self-assured for a boy of 18, and Lennon was in awe of him and his artistic talent.
The Beatles' abilities were well-hidden at this stage, she says. "I remember in 1959 I was dispatched by my mother to go and see them. My parents frowned on the idea of him being in this group, but they didn't dismiss it out of hand. So I went along with Stuart to this incredibly seedy joint in Liverpool. I must have been 15. As far as I can remember, none of them was particularly skilled."
In 1960, Alan Williams, the Beatles' manager at the time, got them a residency in Hamburg, training ground for a number of Liverpool groups including Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, whose drummer was Ringo Starr. John, Paul, George, Stuart and drummer Pete Best played their first gigs in a strip joint, the Indra Club, as a kind of audition for playing the larger Kaiserkeller.
Klaus Voormann, the first of the Exis to encounter the Beatles, became an important figure in their circle for several years. He drew the cover of their album Revolver, played on Lennon's album Imagine and in George Harrison's Concert for Bangladesh, and toured with Lennon's Plastic Ono Band.
Kirchherr remembers the night Voormann first saw the Beatles. "He had gone to the cinema and was walking around afterwards when he heard this noise coming from a cellar. He followed the noise, and saw this English rock-and- roll band playing. When he got home, he was very excited. He asked me to go along and see them at the Kaiserkeller Club. For me, the Beatles were outstanding. I was breathless, speechless."
She remembers they played no songs of their own, only hits by American
artists: "Love Me Tender," "Kansas City" and a lot of Chuck Berry and Little Richard songs.
"They all wore very tight jeans and pointed shoes, and they had fantastic hairdos, with their hair swept up high," Kirchherr recalls. "From the first moment, I found Stuart the most attractive. He had a mystique. He always wore dark glasses on stage. He knew he was a terrific performer just by looking cool and smoking a cigarette."
Sutcliffe was only 20 at the time, but, Kirchherr says, "he was so confident about being an artist. The way he talked, he was so mature and intelligent. From the first time I saw them, I knew they weren't just five dirty little boys from Liverpool without an education."
Shortly after meeting the Beatles, Kirchherr started taking her extraordinary photos of the group. They still had their Teddy Boy pompadours in those days, and favored leather jackets. Later she dressed Sutcliffe, then the other Beatles, in black leather and collarless jackets.
Sutcliffe quit the Beatles in 1961 and moved in with Kirchherr. Through her, he met artist-sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi, a teacher at Hamburg Art School. Paolozzi was so impressed by Sutcliffe that he secured him a scholarship at the school.
Pauline Sutcliffe and Kirchherr say that Stuart worked relentlessly on his large, swirling abstracts. "He painted day and night. He allowed himself almost no rest," Kirchherr says.
In England, Sutcliffe had been beaten up in a fight and taken a blow to the head. Back in Hamburg with Kirchherr, he suffered headaches. "We went from one doctor to another," she recalls. "None could find out what was wrong."
He died suddenly in April 1962, 10 minutes after complaining of a particularly bad headache. Kirchherr was beside him and rushed him to a hospital in an ambulance. They were to have been married two months later. An autopsy revealed a brain hemorrhage, and writers have linked his death to the beating.
"There are areas of doubt," Pauline Sutcliffe says. "He was beaten up, it's a fact. But was the blow to the head the precursor of brain hemorrhage? What with the timing of the incident in relation to his death, I have my doubts."
For the Beatles, events moved with astonishing speed after Sutcliffe's death. That month, April 1962, they were in Hamburg, on their last tour of the city's clubs. Outside Liverpool and Hamburg, they were unknown.
In August 1962, back in England, new manager Brian Epstein replaced Best with Ringo Starr. In September 1962, the Beatles recorded their first single, ''Love Me Do." A year after Sutcliffe's death, they had become the biggest pop sensations Britain has ever produced.
In 1964, Sutcliffe's paintings drew 10,000 visitors to a Liverpool art gallery. Art historian John Willett calls him "an outstanding loss to . . . English painting, and over and above the merit of his pictures, he has a special significance as somebody whose burning creativity switched from art into pop music and then back again. He showed the way."
Kirchherr still lives in Hamburg and works as an assistant for a music publishing company. Pauline Sutcliffe, who was 18 when her brother died, is a family therapist and has just co-written a book about Stuart, also called Backbeat.
Kirchherr and Pauline Sutcliffe do not communicate. Sutcliffe says contact was lost when Kirchherr married. Kirchherr says she never got along with the Sutcliffe family, even when Stuart was alive, but bears no ill will. Yet both women are preoccupied by the lack of recognition Stuart Sutcliffe has received
from the Beatles and their biographers.
Pauline regrets that his reputation as a painter has depended on his being ''the fifth Beatle": "He was an artist first, then a rock-and-roll lover. But when you die that young and you were in the Beatles, it's as though you can't be an artist, too. I'm still very sad he died. There would have been some things coming out of that boy which were unbelievable."