Jim McLaine (David Essex) was a bright student at school, but nothing in the arena of learning appealed to him even though he was all set to head to university after his final year. What did appeal to him was the new sound of rock 'n' roll which had arrived from the United States and was obsessing much of the youth culture in Britain, but he was not motivated enough to do anything about it, or anything at all very much, not even putting his foot down when the older lads in his town would dominate the eligible girls he tried to get to know. So what else was there to do but throw his schoolbooks in the river and head for the seaside?
David Essex was just having his first taste of stardom in 1973, not only in this film which spawned a sequel he also appeared in, Stardust, but in the pop charts as well as his record Rock On was storming the hit parade, winning him a legion of female fans who stayed loyal for the rest of his career. The main question which arises about That'll Be the Day however is one of quality in comparison to that sequel: which was best? They both have their merits, yet although they shared characters they had different concerns, with the follow-up being about the consequences of the fame Jim wishes for in the first film.
This leaves what many observed as a throwback to the kitchen sink drama of the fifties and early sixties in the United Kingdom's national cinema, as much an act of rebellion to the status quo as the rockers, though they quickly became assimilated into the entertainment landscape as things moved on apace. By 1973, making one such effort was akin to a nostalgia piece, and no matter how gritty and realistic director Claude Whatham rendered Ray Connolly's sharply crafted script the fact remained that they could not get away with not littering the soundtrack with pop hits of the day, from both sides of the Atlantic, and placing a star of that era, Billy Fury, in much the same role in fiction as he played in reality.
Once Jim escapes to the seaside to hire deck chairs on the beach as he draws up his loose plans to make something of himself - which amounts to pages and pages of scribbled lyrics in notepads - he half acknowledges that it's the lack of a strong father figure that has brought him to this drifting through life, although precisely what he is thinking and how much he puts into planning the path of his existence are kept ambiguous by Essex's acting. It's a tricky role simply because Jim isn't exactly a great guy (interesting to note he was based on John Lennon); time and again we see him overcome his natural shyness only to behave like a heel to those around him, such as raping a teenage schoolgirl at the funfair he takes a job in, or failing to rush to the aid of his best friend when he stumbles upon him getting beaten up by a gang.
That friend was Mike, played by Ringo Starr during that lengthy period when he was branching out into an acting career, and his performance here was generally regarded as his finest outside of A Hard Day's Night around ten years before. Also appearing was Keith Moon, getting a few lines as Fury's drummer though in addition selecting the excellent oldies on the soundtrack along with Beatles associate Neil Aspinall, as well as a number of well known faces from film and television, including James Booth as the briefly glimpsed absent father, Robert Lindsay as the friend who did attend university and offers a look at what Jim might have been, Rosemary Leach as Jim's longsuffering mother, Rosalind Ayres as the girl he ends up marrying though we cannot discern any love for her in his eyes, and Deborah Watling (from Doctor Who) who takes Jim's virginity in record time. All offer very accomplished performances, as you can quibble about the hairstyles and minor details, but the atmosphere rings with authenticity because all involved could recall what it was like back in the late fifties.