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Cult Movie: David Essex debut That'll Be The Day reflected 70s nostalgia for 50s

David Essex and Ringo Starr in That'll Be The Day
Ralph McLean

NOSTALGIA for the 1950s was a big box-office draw in the early 70s. As the kids who first enjoyed the primal screams of rock and roll started to mature and come to realise that the reality of adult life was much more bleak than the arrival of Elvis and company had suggested it would be, they began to pine for the simplicity of their youth. Suddenly 50s fashions and rock and roll were fashionable again.

It was perhaps inevitable that the cinema of the era would have to reflect that retro mood. It made for two very different cinematic experiences on either side of the Atlantic, though.

Where American Graffiti ticked all the cool boxes of early rock and roll heaven in the States, Britain was left with the glummer and grittier delights of That'll Be The Day.

Released in 1973, director Claude Whatham's tale of ordinary suburban kid Jim MacLaine, who hitches a ride on the burgeoning rock and roll bandwagon and goes on to become the biggest star of his generation, was a huge box office success. It made a star of David Essex, shifted bucket loads of its spin-off soundtrack album (laden with 50s classics) and even spawned a glammed-up sequel, Stardust, that sees our hero blow his mind with fame, drugs and general 70s decadence.

A classic rags-to-riches tale of a working-class boy who makes it but loses it all along the way, it painted a vivid picture of Britain in the pre-swinging era. The young MacLaine frequents dreary dancehalls and dangerous funfairs (where he hooks up with his partner in musical crime, Mike, played to lecherous perfection by Ringo Starr no less), gets his young girlfriend into trouble then walks away from his young family to seek fame and fortune.

With a cutting screenplay by rock scribe Ray Connolly and an atmosphere that recalls the bleak kitchen sink dramas of the previous decade, That'll Be The Day is as dark as American Graffiti is bright. This is much more Saturday Night Sunday Morning than Summer Holiday. and all the better for that as well.

Which makes it particularly disappointing that the film is rarely mentioned when people are compiling their lists of greatest rock movies ever. Perhaps it's that unrelenting bleakness that some find hard to stomach. There's a downbeat vibe that ensures this is much more than a mere nostalgia fest.

There's also a casual sexism in the day-to-day life of Jim's rising rock group The Stray Cats that jars today but as a picture of 1950s Britain that's doubtless the way it was.

There are memorable cameos for real-life rock stars like Keith Moon and Billy Fury that are fun to watch but this is all about Essex. He may not be the greatest actor ever but he looks fantastic and he's a true natural. It's easy to see why his doe-eyed face adorned a million teenage girls' walls.

Hard, authentic and truthful in a way rock films rarely are, That'll Be The Day feels like a true classic to me.

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