The Rise & Demise Rock ’N Roll Machine
The approach to the making of a music film is as broad as the spectrum of music itself. There’s many a time that you don’t have to even be a fan of the band/subject to be richly rewarded with a viewing, be it a documentary, biopic or fictional drama, the well recorded excesses of the music world have enough notes, tastes and remixes to appease pretty much everyone.
It also brings another level of enjoyment to watch works from previous decades, a long lost past, where the most subtle of elements can make the piece seem like it’s from a different world, if not an entirely different galaxy, or overt moments that make you think how the hell did this attitude ever exist at all. So it’s certainly interesting/fascinating (to varying degrees) diving in with the justifiable awareness of 2019 into the latest releases from STUDIOCANAL Vintage Classics collection that follow the career trajectory of fictional artist Jim MacLaine over two movies ‘That’ll Be The Day’ (1973) and ‘Stardust’ (1974).
Jim MacLaine is played by the now highly established David Essex, who at the time was relatively fresh in his career too. It’s an interesting experience watching both movies on these new Blu-ray releases, which thankfully come with some brand new interviews from the writer (Ray Connolly), producer (David Puttnam) and one of the directors (Michael Apted who did Stardust) to help put things into context and map out their own career journeys in parallel to MacLaine’s.
First up is ‘That’ll Be The Day’ which despite it being promoted as a music film is far closer to being an incredibly bleak, nihilistic and rather dour story set in 1950s/60s Britain. Following the young Jim who reacts somewhat unfavourably to being in school, and despite showing some intelligence, decides in his ‘wisdom’ to skip school before final exams and not go to college.
This is no doubt a delayed aftershock of his dad walking out on the family after he himself returned from war, but this so-called Rebel Without A Cause (there’s a shot of a James Dean photo at one stage) vibe comes across only as an ignorant, juvenile, insecure sexist bigot, that he effectively stays as for the entire movie. Certainly the location changes as he leaves home to work renting deck chairs, then a holiday camp, and on to a travelling fairground, but he only becomes more obnoxious, sexist and basically contemptuous as the years pass by.
He’s truly a deeply unlikeable individual with zero merits, as he uses every opportunity to coerce girls to have sex with him, whether they want it or not (there’s a scene where he effectively rapes a teen school girl), and at one point uses one girl’s back as a scoreboard, writing what number she is in his conquests. It’s stunningly misogynist, and you don’t have to be any sort of activist to support this view. It’s also ridiculous that Essex got a BAFTA nomination for this performance, as he comes across as a sleep-deprived love child of Robbie Williams and Mark Owen, harsh but true, probably enhanced by my dislike of the character.
Mentioned in the extras is the background to the making of the movies, and it is extremely apparent that the wrong director (Claude Whatham) was given the job to guide ‘That’ll Be The Day’, as it’s a ponderously slow, kitchen sink drama, with splatterings of music, mostly in the soundtrack which was a separate commercial interest. But for me, it doesn’t work at all, even with Ringo Starr turning up as wingman on his sexcapades.
Bizarrely the development of Jim as a musician is the very final shot of the movie where he picks up a guitar, after an entire movie of treating everyone he meets with utter contempt, yet strangely it’s all rather fascinating, and somewhat a foundation necessity in regards jumping into ‘Stardust’ which thankfully is an entirely different viewing experience.
Brilliantly directed by Michael Apted, ‘Stardust’ is a far more recognisable music beast as we actually have an arc where despite Jim still being an obnoxious tosser, runs full force into the soul shredding and life crushing/sucking succubus machine that is the music industry. Everything in this movie is turned up to 11 in comparison to the previous misadventure. The budget is bigger, the ideas, the brutal reality, the vision and a higher level of acting all round as the likes of Adam Faith (Mike his manager) and pre Dallas days Larry Hagman as his Texan USA manager Porter Lee Austin come on board and everyone raises their game.
Rather than music being somewhat the backdrop, it’s front and centre as we follow the rise and rise of the band (The Stray Cats), then Jim’s solo career. It’s the classic journey that we have seen many times since, but it’s expertly crafted as we tour from cavern gigs, to studios, to tv spots, to stadiums, all filmed with aplomb, sincerity and the actual reality/vitality of the live music experience.
Rather shrewdly it also shows the parallel cold exploitative reality of the industry as a whole, where everyone is a commodity to be exploited and tossed aside. The venues and aspirations may be ever-increasing, but Jim (to my eyes) is just as vacuous as his behaviour in the first movie, so there is no sympathy for him as he is only too happy to continue his contempt of everyone around him.
‘Stardust’ also looks great, rich in colour, sound and expanse as the American/global world they now live in. It feels like a proper Rock movie, where individuals are presented and worshipped as gods, and true enough to form, they start to believe it themselves. As I’ve mentioned before, there’s praise of in the extras (which are really interesting) for David’s performance, I don’t share that in any way, but it doesn’t detract from the overall experience, certainly not in ‘Stardust’. At one point it’s mentioned by a character that he’s not a marionette, which actually seemed spot on.
Nevertheless, this is definitely a classic British Rock movie, absolutely worthy of a collection, and despite my lack of affection for ‘That’ll Be The Day’, they do go hand in hand, like the support, there to make the main act look all the much better.
‘That’ll Be The Day’ and ‘Stardust’ are available on STUDIOCANAL Vintage Classics collection 4K Blu-ray DVD now.