There are some great rock’n’roll movies out there – great in that they capture artists in their prime, performing the numbers they’re remembered for, at the time they were fresh and contemporary. On the down side, the ephemeral nature of any movie designed principally to exploit the popularity of a music genre means that the production values of many leave an awful lot to be desired. Indeed, in a lot of cases, the less of a story the better, as the dire script and acting get in the way of what would otherwise be a string of top notch, pre-music video, performances.
Like many in pre-You Tube days, I haunted the twilight hours of BBC2 and Channel 4, combing the Radio Times for that obscure rock’n’roll, jazz or film noir movie to add to a collection of video tapes that threatened to take over the spare room. Later, the process of transferring that lot to DVD also gave me the chance to produce my own compilations of the performances by themselves, meaning I can have my version of MTV whenever I want it. But here, spread over a couple of articles, is a selection of my favourites amongst the movies themselves – chosen sometimes not just for the musical content, but the sheer ability to evoke an era – for good or ill.
We’ll start part one of this topic with the classic American offerings:
Rock Around the Clock. I could, of course, start with The Blackboard Jungle, where Rock Around the Clock as a single track first gained cinematic notoriety (supposedly because Glenn Ford’s son suggested it), but – although a classic of the juvenile delinquent genre – it’s not primarily a rock’n’roll film. The 1956 film named after the record, though, is in that first wave aimed at putting the music at the heart of the story. With a passable storyline and workmanlike acting, the bits in between the songs don’t jar, and there’s six classic Bill Haley numbers (the title track, See You Later Alligator, Rock-a-Beatin’ Boogie, Razzle Dazzle, R-O-C-K, Rudy’s Rock), including one great rehearsal scene in informal dress. With an Alan Freed involvement, it’s no surprise to find a couple of hits by the Platters (Only You, The Great Pretender) adding a good doo-wop dimension. For me, the weakest element is the East Coast Italian sub-rock’n’roll sounds of Freddie Bell and the Bellboys. It’s also a shame that, after a great introductory scene with a dance floor full of jivers, the story hones in on a brother-and-sister dance act performing fey choreographed ‘routines’ that bear no resemblance to anything one would have seen in dance halls or sock hops of the era.
The Girl Can’t Help It. Another 1956 offering, but in a very different class. In colour for a start, and with big-ish names in the cast (Tom Ewell – seen opposite Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch; pneumatic Monroe-a-like Jayne Mansfield showing a knack for sending herself up; and stock heavy Edmond O’Brien), the script is witty and tongue in cheek. Sadly, for a movie purporting to centre on the ‘new’ music, some of the acts featured, including Abbey Lincoln and Julie London, veer more towards the lounge/easy listening shelf in the collection, and Italian songsters The Three Chuckles are about as un-rock’n’roll-like as one can get, but the nightclub scenes in which they perform are glamorously evocative. In any case, the chance to see Little Richard (Ready Teddy, She’s Got It), Eddie Fontaine (Cool It, Baby), Gene Vincent (Be Bop a Lula), Eddie Cochran (Twenty Flight Rock), the Treniers (Rockin’ Is Our Business), Fats Domino (Blue Monday) and the Platters (You’ll Never Know) performing in luscious technicolour more than makes up for any disappointments. If only Eddie Cochran wasn’t confined to a TV screen, and the Gene Vincent rehearsal segment wasn’t interrupted by plot!
Rock, Rock, Rock. 1956 again, back to black and white, and definitely very light on story and acting (something to do with a prom dress, I recall). This one’s got Alan Freed written all over it, proving that he has no sense of timing as he attempts to sing along with his own house band; and, with Teddy Randazzo of the Three Chuckles in the romantic lead, there’s altogether far too much East Coast Italian vocal group material from both him and Cirino and the Bowties (ugh), plus some clunky rockers from Jimmy Cavallo and – possibly the nadir of any rock’n’roll movie – rockin’ pre-teen Ivy Schulmann performing ‘Baby Want to Rock’. Nauseating, honest. It’s worth persevering (or fast forwarding), though, for some of the great black artists that Freed championed: the Moonglows (I Knew From the Start), Big Al Sears (Right now, Right Now), LaVern Baker (Tra La La), and two numbers from Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers (Baby Baby, I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent). And then, incongrously but gloriously, there’s a slice of pure Memphis rockabilly from Johnny Burnette performing ‘Lonesome Train’ – worth the whole film on its own and always leaving me wondering how that bit ended up being included.
Don’t Knock the Rock. Another Alan Freed showcase from later in 1956, quickly following up the success of Rock Around the Clock. With story, script and acting given even less care than usual, this one still has the benefit of a handful of Bill Haley classics (Hot Dog Buddy Buddy, Goofin’ Around, Hook Line and Sinker, Calling All Comets, Rip It Up), along with storming performances by Little Richard (Long Tall Sally, Tutti Fruiti), and a couple of solid numbers by the Treniers (One of These Days, Rockin’ the Week). Inevitably, there are the weaker artists from the Freed stable, including forgettable baritone and romantic lead Alan Dale, and Dave Appell and the Applejacks (no, I’ve never heard of them, either). The weird rock’n’roll dance couple are back, too, in one scene sporting swimming costumes for an indoor dance session whilst others peer through the windows at them – very League of Gentlemen…
And then there’s the also rans. ‘Shake, Rattle and Rock’ – where the musical offerings from Fats Domino, Joe Turner and Tommy Charles, whilst good in their own right, are thin on the ground with five numbers in the whole movie and little else to recommend it. ‘High School Confidential’, on the other hand, is worth seeking out, not just for the solitary performance of the title track right at the start by Jerry Lee Lewis on the back of a truck, electrifying in its own right, but also for some wonderful beatnik moments in amongst the juvenile delinquency as Philippa Fallon let’s rip with the blank verse ‘High School Drag’ and John Drew Barrymore subverts a history lesson with ‘Christopher Columbus Digs the Jive’. ‘Rock, Baby, Rock It’ is a fascinating collection of obscure but authentic artists, sadly quite statically filmed and, if there was a plot, I missed it, but where else could you see film of Johnny Carroll, Rosco Gordon, the (rather spooky) Belew Twins, let alone such rarities as the Cell Block Seven, Don Coats and the Bon Airs, the Five Stars, and Preacher Smith and the Deacons. One I’ve never managed to acquire, but endlessly watch a You Tube clip from, is ‘Carnival Rock’, just to see Bob Luman performing ‘This is the Night’, with a teenage James Burton tearing into one of his early searing guitar solos, even if it is truncated for the movie.
Let’s finish, though, with a rock’n’roll offering from the king of the B Movies, Roger Corman, featuring the Corman repertory company standard ‘plucky little guy with the chip on his shoulder’ Dick Miller in a hostage-taking-in-a-seedy-nightclub cheapie called ‘Rock All Night’. There’s a couple of pretty awful numbers by Nora Hayes dubbing for actress Abby Dalton, an obscure rocking house band called the Blockbusters and, contracted in for an odd day’s work and bizarrely out of place, the Platters performing their standards, ‘He’s Mine’ and ‘I’m Sorry’ – as if they would ever been found in a club like that. Two sets, filmed in five days, a double feature with Dragstrip Girl – that’s what late night TV is all about!