ELVIS HAS LEFT THE BUILDING
In 1965, the Rolling Stones declined to appear on TV’s Shindig unless it also booked blues singer Howlin’ Wolf. A murky YouTube video immortalises the result. After Mick Jagger interrupts a fatuous presenter to explain how the Stones plundered Wolf’s repertoire for such hits as Little Red Rooster, Brian Jones interjects tersely “Why don’t you just shut up and let him sing?” Cue Wolf, an imposing six-foot three who, with the stately presence of a Zulu king, strides through his fawning fans to seize the mike and launch into How Many Years.
French TV, as part of a half-hearted rock film season, recently screened two early British contributions to the genre, Claude Whatham’s That’ll Be the Day andMichael Apted’s Stardust (1973 and 1974). One might wish they had dug deeper and unearthed such oddities as John Boorman’s Catch Us If You Can (1965), showcasing the Dave Clark Five, but at least we were spared the saccharine jollity of Summer Holiday.
That’ll Be the Day is less about music than the cultural aridity of post-war Britain and the way teenagers of the time embraced American R&B as the emblem of everything lacking in their lives. Instead of American Graffiti‘s Wolfman Jack, their generation had coffee shop juke boxes and pirate radio stations broadcasting from just beyond the three mile limit. Thom Gunn, Britain’s closest approach to a beat poet, grasped that it was about more than just the music. Of Elvis Presley, he wrote “Distorting hackneyed words in hackneyed songs/He turns revolt into a style.”
Producer David Puttnam and author Ray Connolly tapped memories of their own adolescence for That’ll Be the Day. The impulse of which Gunn wrote, and the challenge of something new and exciting just out of reach, stirs Jim Maclaine (David Essex) into dumping his schoolbooks and following his footloose father (James Booth) in a flight from life as a suburban grocer.
|David Essex, Ringo Starr, That'll Be The Day|
During a stint in another post-war leisure institution, the holiday camp, Jim hooks up with Mike (Ringo Starr, showing surprising skill as an actor) who recruits him as a carnival roustabout. They cheat and fornicate their way across England, enveloped always in a haze of American pop, until Jim, more by chance than good judgement, finds himself in a group. The film ends with him buying his first guitar.
Like American Graffiti, That’ll Be the Day isn’t about music at all, except as an expression of youthful revolt. Jim might just as easily have been a painter or athlete– except that neither could have taken the next essential step, that of transmuting rebellion into money. Essex, recruited from the cast of the musical Godspell, doesn’t sing a note in the film, but Puttnam cannily interested a packager in a compilaton album of the songs heard as background music. Lavishly marketed on TV like a similar American Graffiti anthology, it drew millions to the cinema, and encouraged EMI to fund a second film, following Jim Maclaine to super-stardom.
Stardust finds him as lead singer in The Stray Cats, a struggling band, albeit one overloaded with talent. Paul Nicholas, soon to feature in Ken Russell’s Tommy and Lisztomania, is its priapic lead guitarist, and its drummer is The Who’s antic Keith Moon. Replacing Ringo Starr, real life pop star Adam Faith is Mike, now elevated to band manager. In the film’s first scene, Jim finds him at the carnival, watching news reports of the John Kennedy assassination. “It’s been quiet tonight,” he says laconically. “I thought there must be something good on the telly.”
|David Essex, Adam Faith, Stardust|
In Faith’s cunningly underplayed performance, his character moves to centre stage. Expert at doing shady deals and disposing of inconvenient collaborators, each time preceded by the apparently innocuous invitation “Fancy a drink?”, he first makes The Stray Cats famous, then cuts Jim loose to stand alone on the shaky pedestal of world fame.
Jim’s French girlfriend Danielle (Ines de Longchamps) is the first to sense more than comradely affection in Mike’s dedication. “Is he not beautiful?” she murmurs, intercepting one of his rapt stares. His scandalised denial of any homoerotic interest signals that she too will soon join his other victims on the scrap heap of Jim’s growing fame.
Ringo Starr declined to repeat the role of Mike rather than seem to criticise Paul McCartney for manoeuvring The Beatles into embracing American management methods, embodied in the film by brash media mogul Larry Hagman. Not that either Lennon or McCartney ever entertained the inflated ambitions that lead Jim to retire to a castle in Spain (sic) and write a pompous oratorio in praise of women, but there’s no shortage of former lead singers who did so, and came catastrophically to grief.
Generations who grew up after the Elvis era, knowing only the obese poseur of the Las Vegas years, and who are baffled by the reverence he inspired, will find some explanations in these films. The baby-faced Essex, an indifferent singer and even less accomplished actor, might seem an odd choice for the role of a superstar but his very incompetence emphasizes the crucial importance of timing in this overcrowded field. Talent matters little if, by distorting hackneyed words in hackneyed songs, one can turn revolt into a style.