Over the years, we've been inundated with generic rock 'n' roll dramas, but this rarely-screened UK import is a standout, steeped in authenticity, attitude and unflinching turns. It's been 20 years since I'd last seen this downbeat film, and while its companion pic, director Claude Whatham's THAT'LL BE THE DAY, has been long available, this ambitious sequel remains MIA -- undoubtedly due to problems with the music rights, since its soundtrack overflows with classic tunes. THAT'LL BE THE DAY was a gritty li'l tale of early-'60s rebel Jim MacLaine (popstar David "Rock On" Essex), but scripter Ray Connolly and director Michael Apted (in his sophomore feature) have a more expansive agenda, as they follow the rise, phenomenal success, destruction, and self delusions of a British rock band (which often mirrors The Beatles' career trajectory). MacLaine's story picks up on the night of JFK's death, as Jim and his leather-jacketed quintet, The Stray Cats -- including Paul Nicholas, Dave Edmunds (who did double duty as the music supervisor) and drummer Keith Moon -- recruit longtime-bud Mike ('50s singer-turned-actor Adam Faith) as their manager and convince a local laundromat owner to be their Brian Epstein clone. They soon go from playing cavernous nightclubs and shagging local lovelies, to wearing mod suits and watching their first single top the charts. But tensions grow when Jim becomes the band's breakout star, and only increase when (never subtle) Larry Hagman appears as a wealthy scumbag who helps seduce MacLaine to the dark side of showbiz. Their exuberant rise to the top is nothing in comparison to the eventual band blowout, as deluded Jim gets a scary perm, sports silver-lame jackets and refers to himself as "the minstrel of a generation." Jim's longtime girlfriend (Ines Des Longchamps) is the only intelligent voice, but she eventually gets dicked around by Jim too. There's also his pretentious (and really painful) rock opera about the "deification of women," which looks like Rick Wakeman on Xanax. His spiral down is unapologetically heavyhanded, as Jim eventually turns into a reclusive, constantly-stoned basketcase hiding out in his private castle... We get the picture. Fame sucks. Showbiz can turn you into a dickhead. The paparazzi are parasites. Fans are pawns. And those damned musicians are even worse. The edgy script doesn't shy away from drugs, sex, corporate scum, and celeb-stupidity, while Apted and cinematographer Tony Richmond (DON'T LOOK NOW, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH) expertly capture the grungy early locales, rise-to-fame hysteria, and how unchecked egotism can spoil the best party. Essex flounders during his heavier moments but has plenty of charm (and his resemblance to a 3rd-rate McCartney doesn't hurt matters), Moon brings some Who-esque lunacy to his small role (which primarily consists of throwing food), and the standout perf is from Faith, who rounds up the groupies, handles the payola and plays the all-around puppetmaster. It's an absorbing and incredibly cynical portrait of the highs and lows of music stardom.
© 2001 by Steven Puchalski.