Charles Hatfield's Reviews > Baby's in Black: Astrid Kirchherr, Stuart Sutcliffe, and The Beatles

Baby's in Black by Arne Bellstorf
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's review
Jun 14, 2012

really liked it
Read in June, 2012

Baby's in Black is a sweet, and I suspect idealized, account of the love affair between artist-photographer Astrid Kirchherr and the "Beatle who got away," Stu Sutcliffe. In essence, it's the semi-fictive, or at least freely dramatized, biography of a couple, shown very much from Kirchherr's POV. It's also a story about the Beatles, their apprenticeship (so to speak) in Hamburg circa 1960-62, their sketchy, almost desperate living circumstances there, and their dependence on each other. I gather the book covers much the same territory as the film Backbeat (dir. Iain Softley, 1994), but I haven't seen that.

This may be a story that can get by on built-in poignancy: the idea of eavesdropping on the Beatles' growth is irresistible, and the story of Sutcliffe, in hindsight, cannot help but seem tragically fated. I could not quite decide whether Bellstorf's very gentle approach to the material worked wonders because of the inherent grace and vivid atmosphere in his cartooning, or because I knew just enough about the story already, and cared enough about the Beatles, to go along. The story's tensions are underplayed, and its strongest moments are evocations of environment and passages of understated tenderness. There are perhaps a few too many similar-looking young men to tell apart in the comic: sometimes I would stumble when Bellstorf shifted from, say, Sutcliffe to Klaus Voorman, who is also a major character here. Yet Bellstorf is very good at capturing subtle likenesses through minimal style: Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison are all distinct, easily recognizable persons. What's more, the settings have a wonderful, moody authenticity--by which I mean lived-in distinctiveness and telling details--that made me feel as if I'd been fairly transported to early-sixties Hamburg.

It may be that Baby's charms are fragile. It overt complications are few. But it is fairly hypnotic, with its fluent, sure-handed cartooning, wonderful pillow shots, silent intervals, dreamy transitions, elegant design, scenic particulars, and well-observed characterization (Lennon is a particular standout, acutely aware of his status as a displaced Englishman among Germans). And the last few pages, which of course lead to a foregone conclusion, startled me with the way they were handled: the book manages to end with a genuine surprise that I find rather moving. A lovely book, on balance.

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