Remember When Ringo Starr Made a Rock Movie with David Essex, Billy Fury, and Keith Moon

After the Beatles broke up in 1970, drummer Ringo Starr faced a crossroads. The Beatles’ Let It Be would close the book on that iconic group. It was a transitional time for the famed musician, who had already acted in the movies Candy and The Magic Christian, the latter with Peter Sellers. With his time in the most famous rock band of all time coming to a close, new adventures awaited him. These included an unexpected cinematic character study that begat an incredible sequel.

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On the music front, Starr was the first Beatle to release a proper solo album on March 27, 1970 entitled Sentimental Journey. This was even before Let It Be hit stores. It was his take on the Great American Songbook, which he followed with the country collection Beaucoup of Blues on September 27. These two releases sold decently, with his debut going Top 10 in the UK and Top 30 in America. Two non-album singles co-written with his former bandmate George Harrison, “It Don’t Come Easy”  and “Back Off Bugaloo,” went Top 5 in the UK and Top 10 in the U.S.

But it was in 1973 that his third album Ringo became a bonafide hit, going Gold in America and eventually Platinum. The two singles “Photograph” (co-written with Harrison) and the Sherman Brothers cover “You’re Sixteen,”  both hit the Top 5 in the UK and shot to No. 1 in America.

That’ll Be the Day

This was the same year that Starr had a major supporting role in That’ll Be the Day, a movie written by well-known British music journalist Ray Connolly and directed by Claude Whatham. Connolly had a close association with The Beatles back then, and he a lot of stories to bring to this project which, despite having the title of a Buddy Holly and The Crickets song, was inspired by the Harry Nilsson tune “1941.” (This journalist wrote and recorded the commentary track for Kino Lorber’s 2020 Blu-ray of the film.)

The movie starred Essex, who would turn into a star within a year. Essex had been involved in different projects in the early ’70s in theater, film, and music. He first made a name for himself by starring in the West End production of Godspell in 1971, and he later said he was the first person to play Jesus in the West End because it had previously been forbidden.

That’ll Be the Day was an unusual film that had a modest £400,000 budget. Taking cues from “1941,” Connolly crafted the tale of a young man named Jim MacLaine (played by Essex) whose father returned from WWII a different man and who ultimately abandoned his family. Flash forward to high school. MacLaine is a bright but disaffected student who does not want to go to university and wants to just go out and live, unsure of his future.

That might sound like a cliche story, but the context makes it not so. This was 1959 in England and only 5% of students in college were going to get a higher education. Unlike America after World War II, England did not have a boom period. It was rebuilding cities like London that had been relentlessly bombed by the Nazis during The Blitz. Essex’s character literally runs off to join the circus and becomes a carny. He befriends and lives with another carny named Mike played by Ringo Starr.

It’s a nomadic life involving lots of freewheeling sexual encounters. Along the way, Jim sleeps with many different girls, learns how to play the field, and unfortunately also rapes one of them one night along the edges of the carnival grounds. After his life fails to flourish, he returns home to live his mother and gets involved with a local woman and gets her pregnant. Spoiler alert: By the end, Jim feels stifled by his dull life, so he grabs a guitar from a local shop and sets off on the precarious path of chasing rock stardom. He has done to others what his father did to him.

That’ll Be the Day is at times a dark character and realistic study of the period of time that saw the rise of rock ‘n’ roll in England prior to the British Invasion taking over. That movement brought rock not only to England, but revitalized it in America. The film actually did fairly well at the UK box office and spawned a successful soundtrack that included vintage cuts from the likes of Fury, the Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Del Shannon, and many, many others.

During the film’s story, Jim becomes enamored with the local rock ‘n’ roll scene. A star at the time, Billy Fury, who was akin to the British Elvis (the two once crossed paths in Vegas), appeared as one of the hot local musical stars in the fictional band Stormy Tempest and the Typhoons. The bassist was played by Cream’s Jack Bruce, and the drummer was none other than The Who’s famed skins-pounding wild man Keith Moon. He managed to get a few lines in the picture. Even better, the production got to use the Who song “Long Live Rock,” albeit it with a ’50s arrangement, a year before the British quartet actually released their own version of it (which was recorded in 1972).

Fun fact: Although they were portraying younger man, Essex was 25 years old and Starr was 32 when the film was shot in 1972. They both came off looker younger.

Most Americans are not that familiar with the name David Essex. Months after this film came out in the UK, he scored a big hit with “Rock On,” a tune that in recent times has been a Def Leppard concert staple. It went to No. 3 in the UK and No. 5 in the U.S. Essex became a dashing, beloved British pop-rock star in the ’70s and continued his success into the ’80s. His appearance here was serendipitous, and he and Starr were smartly cast against type. Starr’s solo career peaked at the time in 1973, although his Ringo Starr & His All Starr Band would seriously revitalize his fortunes starting in 1989.

A sequel to That’ll Be the Day called Stardust came out in 1974. Also written by Connolly and this time directed by Michael Apted (Coal Miner’s Daughter, the Up documentary series), it chronicled Jim’s rise to rock stardom and the tumultuous, socially alienating life he would lead. While many cast members like Moon returned, Starr reportedly chose not to reprise his role because he felt uncomfortable with how aspects of the story reminded him of when he replaced Pete Best in the Beatles. He did not want to relive that period of his life on screen.

Although it is not well known in America, the dramatic and insightful Stardust is one of the quintessential rock movies of all time. Seek it out. While you’re at it, revisit the ’70s work of Essex and Starr. There are some gems there.

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Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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