A follow up to 'That'll Be The Day'(1973), which is also excellent, 'Stardust' covers the continuing story of Jim Maclaine (David Essex) as he hits the big time with his band, the Stray Cats. However, as with many a rock fable, success comes with a unequivocally hefty price tag.
Essex is good as MacLaine, his sense of identity growing ever more skewiff with his trip to the heady heights of fame. Adam Faith is even better: infectious as hell as the band's manager. His cheeky catchphrase, "Fancy a drink?" generally spells a grim fate for whoever gets hit with it. The late Larry Hagman is well cast too; as a fat cat promoter who comes in to boogie as MacLaine moves to break America.
The music is outstanding, composed largely by the talented singer/songwriter Dave Edmunds who also appears as one of the Cats. The band is rounded out by stage and TV star Paul Nicolas, Karl Howman (of telly's 'Brush Strokes') and the inimitable Keith Moon, who was himself fast-tracking to a MacLaine-esque fate. The Cats' rise to fame is clearly and deeply indebted to the Beatles (from a subterranean club to a poll-winners party to Stateside fame), so much so it rather fondly reminds me of the ace spoof movie 'The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash'(1978).
If the film had a sixties-inflected nostalgia inherent to it on its release, it has another one attached to it now: one for a time when rock movies were still made, and very well. Along with 'That'll Be The Day', the later 'Quadrophenia' (1979, also produced by David Puttnam) and the gritty and very underrated 'Flame'(1975) ,'Stardust' is indicative of a time when the rock and roll dream was vividly depicted as fast becoming the stuff of nightmares.
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.
Adam Faith is particularly good but Larry Hagman pre-Dallas, looks like he walked in just off the plane from Texas.
There needed to be a stronger script and more character development to really get one interested and it's just not there. Whoever Ines Des Longchamps is she delivers one of the most awful performances I have ever seen.