Upon hearing the story opens in 1963, any savvy music fan can guess most of the plot points. The first half of the film is pure pastiche. Sure, dreamily handsome singer Jim Maclaine (David Essex) leads a mop-topped, Merseybeat combo called the Stray Cats (whose members include music legends Dave Edmunds and Keith Moon). The Cats gain a shrewd manager (Adam Faith, yet another real-life pop star), and he helps nudge out an early, unsuitable member. The revised group becomes wildly successful after flying to America. Sound familiar?
But this is a movie determined to end badly, so it can't follow the Beatles myth for long. So, Maclaine and his grumpily marginalized bandmates eventually part ways. And thus begins his hairy, reclusive-enigma phase, as the source material turns from Paul McCartney to Scott Walker and Brian Wilson. Maclaine composes a grandiose rock opera dedicated to his mother, performs it once for a massive television audience and then goes to seed, sequestered in a marvelous Spanish castle.
The film's main problem is that Maclaine's character is so thinly written. People like Walker and Wilson were unique personalities whose quirks guided their destinies. In Maclaine's case, he's just given whatever fleeting behavior is necessary to move the story from point A to point B. So here, he develops a superstar complex. Here, he takes too many drugs. Here, he neglects his wife and son. It's all by the numbers, and rather poorly motivated. He was sympathetic as the troubled youth of "That'll Be the Day," but now he's just a caricature.
The second snag is the music itself. It's just not very good. Beyond the vintage hits used for background ambience, the most memorable tunes are merely "Need a Shot of Rhythm & Blues" and "Some Other Guy," two borrowed warhorses banged out during the Stray Cats' nightclub days. Elsewhere, the original songs are humdrum, sluggish and willfully generic, and hardly seem capable of causing the sensation depicted in the film. This is especially true when the timeline hits 1966 or 1967, and the songwriting is still mired in innocent Beatlemania. Led by Edmunds' input, the tracks also sound anachronistic -- the guitars have '70s-era effects and don't fit their fictional time period. But worst of all is the "opera," which is presented as sort of an orchestral mass featuring a large female choir dressed in angelic gowns. Essex does a fine job singing it -- implausibly frosty breath and all -- but you'll watch this ridiculous indulgence assuming that it will be Maclaine's downfall. Instead, it becomes a landmark event. What?
Ringo Starr had a surprisingly meaty role in "That'll Be the Day," but Keith Moon fans won't find as much to cheer about in "Stardust." Moon has only a few lines, restrains his drumming to suit a pop style and mostly just cavorts in the background. However, Larry Hagman has a choice, hammy part as a drawling entrepreneur, anticipating his J.R. Ewing persona four years before "Dallas." And look fast to see a flash of the young Nick Lowe playing guitar with a rival band. It's just a shame that no one could find David Bowie something to do, given the film's title and era. Presumably, he wasn't willing to give up his orange hair quite yet.