I watched the 2 films David Essex made in the early 70s, in which he played a British pop star from the 50s through to a contemporary climax.
That’ll Be The Day (1973) starts with young Jim MacLaine delighted to finally see his dad back, demobbed at the end of World War Two. Daddy soon decides he can’t settle back in his life working in a shop and sets off elsewhere, leaving behind young Jim with his mum and granddad.
Jump forward a decade and young Jim is a bright lad at Grammar School and well-prepared to do his A-levels on Modern History and the rest. His mate Terry (played by young Robert Lindsay) is rather more prim and already set on the conventional route his parents want him to follow through university and the great post-war social climbing experiment.
But the boys are already lusting hopelessly after girls, including one played by Sue Holderness (Marlene in Only Fools And Horses).
Jim knows there are other lads taking a different route, such as his other mate Johnny (Karl Howman) who are getting a band together. In a moment of youthful madness, he throws his schoolbooks away, fails his exams and goes off to work at the seaside, putting up deckchairs. It’s not great, and soon his mum turns up to tell him what a disappointment he is for her.
So Jim gets work on a travelling funfair that stops off at holiday camps and soon falls in with older Mike (Ringo Starr in this film) who shows him the ropes of how to fiddle the money, who to watch out for, and above all how to enjoy the supply of young women available. Jim isn’t very good at this last bit at first, but he improves with practice. Whether or not Ringo was the best drummer in The Beatles, there can’t be any doubt that he was the best actor, as he does a superb performance as the older man smirking wisely at Jim’s youthful bravado. He’s not impressed at Jim’s willingness to have fun with under-age girls. That’s something to bear in mind if you hear someone claiming such things were seen as normal and acceptable and just fodder for banter in those days.
Also at the holiday camp are a band featuring lead singer Stormy Tempest (Billy Fury, at the sad end of his career by now and doing an impression of his younger self).
Also drummer J.D.Clover, played by Keith Moon, who cheerfully admits that he can’t write and the band can only do Cliff Richard songs because you have to be an American to have pop hits these days.
Terry is now deep in his life as a student. He comes to visit Jim, and Jim pays a return visit to the Student Union, but he feels frozen out. He also doesn’t think much of their love for trad jazz and disdain for rock’n’roll, seen as a trashy fad. Here we seen a theme in the emerging post-War youth culture: the political importance of jazz as a radical artform, absorbed by students and beatniks, who were then nonplussed by the popularity of rougher, commercial sounds in the rest of their generation. For more details see Bomb Culture.
Mike makes a miscalculation and gets badly beaten up by a gang he tried to cheat. Jim gets bored and goes back home to help mum try to make a success of the shop. Terry is now on his way to joining the professional classes, so we have one of those moments when 2 young friends can already sense their lives diverging. Incidentally there are no references to National Service (we are already in the final phase when the numbers called up were being reduced anyway) though we see one young man in uniform briefly in the street. That fits with the experience of young Vic Brown in A Kind Of Loving who also just missed out on it.
Jim gets a new girlfriend Jeanette, friend of Terry’s girlfriend Jean. He proposes to her when they’re in the cinema. FUN FACT: the film they are watching is Horrors Of The Black Museum (1959).
Even though he ties the knot and shows he’s settling down, Jim can’t stop chasing after extra bits on the side. He’s also entranced by the music scene and its impact on the young kids, and he’s already taking notes on performers and what works and what doesn’t.
In the end he meets up with Johnny and the other musicians around town and realises he has to live out the musical dream he’s been obsessed with these last few years, and so he walks off again.
Stardust (1974) picks up the story with Jim coming back to the funfair. I have memories of seeing the start of this film when it was shown on BBC in the early 80s, but it was all too talky and full of adults complaining about their lives and jobs, so it had nothing to hold the attention of anyone under 15.
The news is full of the assassination of Kennedy, which caused the cancellation of the gig Jim’s band were playing that night. He’s come here searching for Mike to take on the job of managing the group, Jim MacLaine & The Stray Cats. Mike is now played by Adam Faith, which is good because I really can’t imagine his role in this film played by Ringo. Ringo in any case might find it a strain playing in a story that is obviously based around that of The Beatles, but in a version where John was the only creative member and acknowledged as such.
Youth culture has moved on a bit as the Macmillan government shuffles to its conclusion. The cool kids at the club are grooving to the latest sounds, but not so keen when the band play their own material. Anyway Mike is busy dealing with dodgy contracts and getting them a better van and equipment.
Mike can get the boys some exciting new gigs, including ones where pretty girl groups are playing as well and there are plenty of chances to pull the birds afterwards.
At the outset Mike says he sees a problem with the other pretty-boy guitarist Johnny, played by Paul Nicholas. He gets dropped and replaced with future Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan just before the group make it big. That change passes with little rancour, possibly because everyone else was tired of him already, though he was willing to give way to Jim in the recording sessions for their first single.
Personally I would have sacked J.D as the drummer as well, because even though Keith Moon is very good at his day job he’s a bloody nuisance all the rest of the time, and quite possibly just improvising scenes as himself in this film. I dunno, bring back Ringo Starr as the new drummer called Mike and have some clever in-jokey bits where Jim gets the 2 of them mixed up. Anyway, we’re now into the start of NotTheBeatlesMania. Here’s an appearance by Charlotte Cornwall as a journalist, a few years before she was in Rock Follies and playing the member of an exciting new band who gets dropped from the line-up.
The years are going by quite fast and we’re not stopping for much background detail apart from the initial inclusion of JFK’s death and some space missions. The Pollwinners Party was in 1965 and after that we were on the road in the US until we have a band meeting at a club in LA, where conveniently an American stand-up comic does a topical routine that mentions Nixon, the Chappaquiddick incident, draft dodgers and Vietnam. So we’re in 1969. The lads have now got hippy outfits and are finally fed up with being Jim’s sidemen, so a deal is reached by Porter Lee Austin (played by Larry Hagman) the American manager who has been in charge during the major part of their global conquest.
Jim has had a French girlfriend Danielle since about 1964 but he did briefly see Jeanette and their son when he went back for his mum’s funeral. But now the band are dividing away from him, he wants to set off to New York to record his epic folly, “Dea Sancta Et Gloria”, rock opera glorifying Woman. Fun fact: although we only see the opening track of this work (broadcast to 300 million fans worldwide in a sensational triumph of satellite communications), someone has tried to create a version of the full work, I don’t know how far that project got.
Nothing I have ever heard about 70s prog rock prepared me for the sheer ludicrousness of this part of the film, though I don’t think it looks much worse in execution than Tommy by The Who, which was completely appalling and also included Keith Moon… playing a dirty old man.
It’s during the recording of this work that Danielle slyly suggests to Mike that his feelings for Jim go a bit deeper, but that idea is never explored in any more detail. We do see the 2 old lads living together in a castle in Spain for the paranoid reclusive final phase of the story. Fun fact: according to imdb “Shaun Ryder cited the film as his inspiration for wanting to become a musician.” and we can hear a connection in the scene where Jim soaks himself in the bathtub and then walks out on the balcony. “You’re wet”, “I’m getting drier.” – the exchange of dialogue that made it into the lyrics of “Wrote For Luck”, suggesting that that song is in fact written from the perspective of Mike at the end of the film. Many other songs on the album Bummed were influenced by Performance, so perhaps Shaun was watching a lot of old 70s films relating to rock stars, as he tried to figure out whether he wanted to take Happy Mondays seriously or just carry on as Tony Wilson’s private joke.
David Essex has always had an odd role in British pop culture. I have a memory that during the 1981 Royal Wedding he was brought on to do a song to fill a gap whilst the happy couple (as they then were) made their way to the airport to start the honeymoon. Live television events were very different in those days. He was in All Coppers Are… for a minute or 2 as a leery teenager at the wedding party. He also had a sitcom called The River around 1990 as a man living on a boat. I never saw it. I think it’s extremely likely that these 2 films were his greatest works. I wonder what anyone in any successful 60s bands thought of them, in particular John Lennon. Lennon was also the target in the film Made, based on Howard Barker’s play No One Was Saved, which started out as a reaction to the phoniness Barker perceived in The Beatles and “Eleanor Rigby” specifically. I very much doubt Lennon ever gave a toss about that.