❉ Could these spruced-up reissues cause these cult rock movies to be re-evaluated?
Looking at it now, it could so easily have be awful. The central idea of That’ll Be the Day (1973) – a representative of Britain’s post-war generation delivers his soul to rock ‘n’ roll – might have been a vehicle for broad, clunky brush-strokes and cringe-worthy pastiche. It’s a tribute to all involved that it was actually something special, something thoughtful and engaging. It was also a success with both critics and punters, spawning an unplanned follow-up, Stardust (1974), completing the main character’s life in rock. Down the decades since, the films have continued to be held in high regard by People Who Like That Kind of Thing, but beyond that they’ve often been overlooked. Could these spruced-up reissues cause them to be re-evaluated?
It’s easy enough to view That’ll Be the Day as part of a whole wave of rock ‘n’ roll years nostalgia that was riding high in 1973. Within weeks, The Rocky Horror Show and American Graffiti made their débuts and the original Grease stage musical hit the West End, while Sha Na Na were making a good living and bleedin’ Showaddywaddy were winning New Faces. Quadrophia was released that October, too.
The fact is, That’ll Be the Day is a very different film to Stardust. Both were written by Ray Connolly and star David Essex as Jim MacLaine, but That’ll Be the Day, directed by Claude Whatham, is languid, evocative stuff, conjuring up a time, a place and a frame of mind rather than being fuelled by a complex plot. Only its very final frame sees MacLaine take possession of a guitar. Before that, we’ve seen him as a music fan, singing along to records in his flat and angling to hook up with a band. By the start of Stardust, directed by Michael Apted, MacLaine’s group The Stray Cats are a real, gigging entity, and the film charts his journey through the entrails of the music business, delivering infinitely more dramatic incident than its forebear.
But That’ll Be the Day isn’t rose-tinted nostalgia. From the start it’s clear that MacLaine is a haunted figure, growing up in the aftermath of the Second World War with a father-shaped hole in his heart. He longs to escape the strictures of his circumstances, eventually sacking off his exams by lobbing his school books into a river and shouting “Sod it!”. With that, he runs away to the seaside, to the fairground, and to a life of girls and music.
There’s more than a hint of John Lennon about Jim MacLaine, from his disappearing father onwards. As an Evening Standard reporter, Ray Connolly wrote about Lennon and knew him well. Thankfully though the parallels aren’t over-egged. Jim’s got plenty of McCartney is his genes too, for one thing (that portmanteau surname is a giveaway). As it happens, the broad shape of the narrative was filched from a song, 1941 by the Beatles’ buddy Harry Nilsson, with which producer David Puttnam was very taken.
That song’s all about the cycles of behaviour passing from fathers to sons, and there’s a lot of material about the interplay between generations here, but to its credit this it’s sensitively done. The older folks in Jim’s life – his mum, teachers, passing coppers – aren’t just embittered killjoys. They’re often looking out for Jim and trying, in their own way, to help him. It’s precisely because it’s not one-dimensional, identikit stuff that the film succeeds. With the tinny roar of all those rock ‘n’ roll songs echoing round a fairground (where they sound perfect), it’s all highly evocative, conveying to the viewer exactly what it must have been like to grow up then – and why anyone would have been desperate to escape.
There’s an unpretentious, honest quality to the dialogue, which remains powerfully earthy and full of the ‘Well, you don’t hear that said in a film much’ factor. It’s beautifully shot too, right at the tipping point between Arcadian lyricism and a drab, washed-out cornucopia of browns. It’s an early credit for cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, and looks all the more sharp and handsome in this fully-restored form.
The success of the first film made a star of David Essex – paging Alanis Morissette! – and he’s ideal casting as MacLaine. Sure enough, he radiates nascent star quality, without actually saying a great deal. For long periods, his inner thoughts only appear in voice-over as brief poems-cum-lyrics. From a certain polite viewpoint, you could say that this showed Essex off at his best, and sure enough his subsequent screen career was underwhelming. Regardless, though, he’s perfect here as a ball of spiky longing.
Ringo Starr is a neat fit too, as Jim’s cynical older mentor Mike, given to appraising Deborah Watling in terms that you would never have expected from Patrick Troughton in Doctor Who. When That’ll Be the Day spawned a follow-up, though, Ringo ruled out a return, which resulted in Adam Faith being drafted in to play Mike in Stardust. Apparently Ringo’s excuse was that Stardust was just too close to home, and you can see his point. With their journey from touring in a van and leathers to being mobbed in big venues in smart suits, Jim MacLaine’s band The Stray Cats are pretty much The Beatles. They even get a Pete Best-style dumpable original member and an Allen Klein-esque deal-mad American manager, and that’s before we get to the influence exerted by Jim’s new foreign girlfriend. But just as Elvis is a lurking presence in the first film – an unheralded poster on a wall, a passing mention – the Beatles themselves don’t dominated proceedings too much, other than a flurry of nods and jokes about witty answers to daft press questions. Ringo probably made the right decision, though.
Again Essex himself doesn’t do or say all that much in Stardust, as Jim MacLaine becomes a kind of Lennon/Brian Wilson/Syd Barrett hybrid. Up to a point Jim’s more obviously sympathetic here, as a victim chewed up and spat out by the machinations of the music business. But then he goes and gives acid to a pregnant dog, which blots his copybook rather.
In some ways it’s as much Adam Faith’s film as Essex’s. Faith bears only scant similarity to the character Ringo played – indeed, there are only a few passing links back to That’ll Be The Day throughout – but he’s a robust presence. Arguably Faith’s starring in a riff on the story of Beatles’ road manager Neil Aspinall. Meanwhile, having just turned up to drum and gurn a bit in That’ll Be the Day, Keith Moon emerges more here too, delivering such thought-provoking dialogue gems as “Now I want something evil to sit on my face” and “Come on in Carlos, how’s your nuts?”
If Stardust has a failing, then, it’s that, for all the added drama and action, it misses some of the deeper resonances of That’ll Be the Day, which was more clear-eyed by dint of looking backwards. Stardust brings the story up to date and as far as Jim MacLaine’s concerned, concludes it, but the rapid rise to fame of Jim and the Stray Cats never quite convinces. It looks like they would have made for a lively night out, but none of their songs are much good, which is a fatal flaw. They’re ersatz like Sweetex, and this lack of conviction undermines the effect. For all that, though, it remains a compelling and prescient meditation on the perils of stardom, with a downbeat air as informed by the death of JFK, seen reported at the start, as That’ll Be the Day was by effects of the war.
The films certainly stand up, then, and for these reissues they’ve scrubbed up very well, making them look and sound as good as they ever could. The extras are paltry, though. The imagination swims at the thought of the special features that could have been, but aside from a photo gallery all we get is a handful of interviews with each film. Though enjoyable enough, they tend to ramble and could have provided the raw material for a decent ‘making of’ documentary or two with a little more effort. Most strikingly, there’s neither sight nor sound of Essex today, which might well have been his call, but it’s still a shame. (A full star commentary on each film would have been brilliant. Ah, well.)
Despite this, there’s no taking away the quality of the films themselves. A sneaking suspicion remains that they could have worked even better as one compact rise-and-fall movie, but then we could have missed out on the unhurried joys of That’ll Be the Day, which is technically all prologue in the Stray Cats story. As they stand, they might even be the ultimate music films, rejoicing in the transformative power of rock’n’roll, featuring as they do a whole heap of pop/rock stars and starring an actor who, in the process, turned into one.
❉ The restored editions of ‘That’ll Be the Day’ and ‘Stardust’ are both available now from STUDIOCANAL on Blu-ray, DVD and download.
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to We Are Cult. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.