That’ll Be the Day and its sequel, Stardust, collectively tell the life story of a fictional “British Invasion” musician named Jim MacLaine. Compelling and evocative, the films are substantially more insightful than most rock-star pictures—freed from the usual obligation to rehash familiar episodes from the lives of real people, these movies create a pastiche reflecting the life cycle common to every self-destructive superstar.
As the Buddy Holly-referencing title suggests, That’ll Be the Day takes place during the ’50s. Jim (played by real-life rock singer David Essex) is a tough English kid with abandonment issues—Daddy skipped out when Jim was a wee lad—and dreams of emulating his favorite American rock stars. Jim drops out of school, gets odd jobs like working at a carnival, and bonds with another testosterone-crazed youth, Mike (played by Beatles drummer Ringo Starr). That’ll Be the Day comprises atmospheric but meandering scenes of the buddies brawling and carousing, juxtaposing Jim’s bachelor adventures with his family’s expectations that he’ll get a real job and settle down.
As written by Ray Connolly, who also penned the sequel, That’ll Be the Day is more about vibe than story, and the lead character comes across as opaque since he’s still in the process of finding himself. Nonetheless, the costuming, dialogue, locations, and period details create a highly credible texture, so at its best, That’ll Be the Day feels like a documentary capturing the vibrant pre-Beatles era in working-class England. Essex and Starr are loose and natural, and the whole cast is stocked with solid British players. However, it’s the music that really energizes the movie, because the soundtrack features amazing tunes by the Beatles, Ray Charles, the Who and others, sometimes played in their original versions as background music, and sometimes performed onscreen by musicians including the Who’s drummer, Keith Moon.
The follow-up movie, which picks up almost immediately after That’ll Be the Day ends, features a much stronger story, and appropriately so—Stardust dramatizes what happens when Jim and his mates in a band called the Stray Cats become Beatles-type rock stars, leading to the customary onslaught of drugs, groupies, sycophants, and villainous record-company executives. There’s a great deal of continuity between the pictures, even though That’ll Be the Day director Claude Whatham was replaced for Stardust by the proficient Michael Apted. Additionally, Essex’s performance gets deeper and more complicated as his character shifts from post-adolescent angst to rock-star ennui.
In Stardust, Jim conquers the world with the Stray Cats, ditches the band for a solo career, and eventually becomes a messianic pop-culture figure. At his apex, Jim presents an epic rock opera as a blockbuster TV special, and the project’s success transforms him into a kind of living god for his fans. Being worshipped makes Jim feel detached from society, however, so by the end of the picture, he’s a millionaire recluse living in a European castle, wandering around in a drug-addled haze while managers and promoters tempt him with lucrative comeback offers.
Seen out of context, Stardust might seem overly melodramatic because of how far it takes the character down the path of self-indulgence, but for viewers who observed Jim’s troubled youth in That’ll Be the Day, the course he charts in Stardust seems believably sad. Once again, the music is great, with tunes by the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Righteous Brothers intermingling with perfectly crafted originals. Better still, the ending is a monster, so Stardust belongs to a select group of sequels that actually improve upon their predecessors.
That’ll Be the Day: GROOVY
Stardust: RIGHT ON