Tuesday, 30 April 2013

One of Those Movies ...

Incredible though it sounds, it is now the fortieth anniversary of the film That'll Be the Day.

If you have travelled deep within the recesses of this blog, you will know that the soundtrack had a profound effect on my musical tastes. In fact there wouldn't be a blog as we know it (well, I know it anyway) without it: those songs ignited my love of doo wop and rock'n'roll.

I was probably about fifteen when I saw the film, and at the same time the songs featured were being played on the radio: I still can the remember the moment I became aware of the beauty and the yearning in Frankie Lymon's voice when he hit a certain note during Why Do Fools Fall in Love? Around the same time there was a Chuck Berry concert on TV, I bought a Little Richard album a few days later, and I've been listening to that kind of thing, or developments thereof, ever since. What? Yes, of course Specialty. Why do you even need to ask?

I was reminded about the film by an article in the current edition of UK music magazine Mojo which provides some interesting background about the films and some amusing details; if you travel to this site you will find readable scans of the article as well as  youtube versions of the complete movie along and its sequel, Stardust. 

I was pleased, though not surprised, to learn from Mojo that Rosemary Leach was unfazed by costar Keith Moon. David Puttnam talks of meeting her at the hotel where the cast were staying when a door crashed open, and drummer and partner tumbled out in flagrante. "Oh," said Leach, "It's one of those movies, is it?"

Now is not the time to talk about my mild - and really only very mild - disappointment at finally seeing Sadie, It's Cold Outside, the sitcom written by Jack Rosenthal and starring Leach and Bernard Hepton as a middle-aged couple under siege from the outside world. I'd seen a short scene with Rosemary Leach in bed asking where it had all gone wrong in a TV compilation of sitcom moments, and thought it must be a forgotten masterpiece, but the series as a whole wasn't quite up to that. In my opinion. Performances were great but the overall effect was a bit too whimsical for my tastes, bit too much making bricks without straw. Maybe it's about getting a solid slab of that kind of thing; scenes in the snug of the Rover's Return in Rosenthal-scripted episodes of Corrie are miniature gems. And maybe  it depends how you feel about that other Rosenthal sitcom The Lovers, which you could say is the same story viewed from the other end. (Wonder if Sadie, It's Cold Outside was sold to ITV as a sequel to The Lovers?)

Good to see, too, in the Mojo article that Puttnam and others admit the first film is better. "It's about me, that film," says writer Ray Connolly, "me in the universality of being adolescent." Which seems like a cue for that reposted review:

 First film is the more universal tale

That'll Be The Day is a modest but very satisfying rites-of-passage movie with 70s pop star David Essex (who'd already scored in the stage musical Godspell) playing a 1950s teenager with a string of conquests but no sense of direction until music starts to give his life a purpose.

He is careless of the feelings of others, so this is not a simple pop cash-in for the singer, and there are good actors around him (the exasperation and affection of mother Rosemary Leach is especially notable) and an excellent, well structured screenplay by Ray Connolly, where even small scenes - the action of a kindly policeman, for example, when Essex is drunk and lonely on his birthday - contribute to a coherent whole.

Ringo Starr must have been taken with the script, too, as he plays Essex's buddy/mentor when they are both working at Butlin's. And a young Robert Lindsay is his schoolfriend, watching in horror as Essex chucks all his books into the river prior to an exam. Lindsay later reappears in a truly fifties moment when he and his university chums are all listening to trad jazz, and the visiting Essex is made to feel left out; shades of the early Beatles having to pretend they were a jazz band to get gigs in Liverpool.

The aimless Essex, for so long indifferent to his mother's concern, eventually makes a stab at being the dutiful son but it does not last long: he cannot resist sleeping with Lindsay's girlfriend (the last in his long line of conquests) immediately before he is due to marry his friend's sister, nor is he able to sustain the marriage for long.

But his struggle throughout the film to make some kind of sense of his life, and the way in which the answer - music - eventually comes into focus with an insistence which cannot be denied, keeps the character sympathetic, or at least understandable.

And in case anyone misses the point, the film is bookended with the idea that he takes after his philandering father, unable to settle down to domesticity after the war. And the greyness (or, to judge from the decor of the family sitting room, the dark, suffocating browns) of a life of late fifties/early sixties conformity is well painted; taking over the family shop, or becoming like the smug Lindsay ("There's always night school," says his mother hopefully), convinces you that whatever is needed to feel fully alive cannot to be found in either of those options. There's a tiny scene using Bobby Darin's Dream Lover, for example, where the combination of the shot and the music really makes us feel his yearning for something else.

The sequel, however, which follows "Jim McLaine" into stardom, is, for me, far less appealing, and Ringo jumped ship (what was effectively his role was taken by Adam Faith). The trouble with this film is that a rites-of-passage story has a universal appeal; following a troubled star's decline when he's surrounded by material wealth (especially when his music is pretentious and high-blown tosh about the role of Woman and Mother) doesn't stir the same sense of general recognition.

Additionally, the focus is on the relationship between Essex and his manager so that the group, the Stray Cats (whio seem to be all actors apart from muso Dave Edmunds) are not called to do that much, and Jim's wife reappears too briefly to make much of an impact. (Come to think of it, the one criticism which could perhaps be levelled at the first film is that we glimpse an underused band there, led by Billy Fury, but in that instance I could understand if they were largely edited out because they don't contribute significantly to Jim's journey.)

So don't expect too much from the sequel. Although I admit that maybe that's partly because for me, personally, the earlier film is a very important one as it alerted me to the hitherto unknown delights of early rock'n'roll and doowop; the soundtrack is liberally spattered with classics of the day, greatly enhanced by the fact that many of them are playing in the perfect setting of a fairground.

A footnote: as for the title of that first film, from a vague memory of reading Melody Maker when the film was just an idea, there had been an attempt to do a Buddy Holly biopic which was quashed for some reason - possibly I'm misremembering but they certainly didn't use, or weren't permitted to use, actual Holly recordings so the version of That'll Be The Day which plays over the closing credits is the Bobby Vee cover (with, I think, the Crickets backing him), and there is a scene where, reunited with his precious record player, Essex brandishes a Buddy Holly LP, saying "I've been waiting weeks to hear this," only for us to be treated to the strains of ... Richie Valens' Donna. But whether or not a biopic of Holly was originally intended, what emerged is a thoroughly worthwhile film which captures the sense of rootlessness which found an answer for many fifties teenagers in rock'n'roll. 
I later wrote some notes about Nowhere Boy, about the young John Lennon's early days, and was surprised to learn from a review by the Observer's Philip French that That'll Be the Day had been based, in part, on Lennon. Surprised, that is, in the sense that I hadn't known about it before - not that surprised otherwise. Neil Aspinall and Ringo were involved in the film, and Rosemary Leach is definitely of the Aunt Mimi type, even though she's the hero's mother. The post is readable here.

Another post, mainly about the novel Paperback Writer, includes a shameful detail about arranging to see this film with a friend. You can read it in full here, but this is the relevant passage:
I was late, and wasn't allowed to enter the cinema as I was just over the thiry minute limit. I wanted to scream: It's not fair! I'm going to appreciate it more than her, what with my extra knowledge about the Beatles, having read all the biographies including the "spurious" one - I've even got a complete book about the "Paul is dead" theory - I mean, c'mon.

But (of course) I didn't. I walked away and mooched around in bookshops for an hour.
There was, however, a reward of sorts later, when she emerged from the cinema and spoke these words: "I'd forgotten she was run over."

But the feeling I had at that moment - an unlovely male sense of superiority about being in possession of more Beatle fax'n'info, basically - vanished in the act of writing this down. 

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