I’ve got a soft spot for low-budget, quickie rock and roll flicks that small studios rushed out to capitalize on the popularity of early rock and roll. Rock and roll music was seen as a fad until The Beatles legitimized it and, all these years later, its fun to look back on a time when the question on everyone’s lips was: “How long do you think rock and roll will last?” Before YouTube and music blogs, the only way to see many of the early rockers shake a tail feather was in early rocksploitation films like the two I’ve chosen for this column; “Rock, Rock, Rock!” and “Go, Johnny, Go!”
Artists like Chuck Berry and Jackie Wilson were around long enough that you could catch them in action elsewhere, but with some of the acts featured, you didn’t get a lot of chances outside of these black-and-white quickies. Like a monster movie, you sit through the bad acting and the inane plot to get to the movie’s reason for being: in this case, a rare chance to see guys like Johnny Burnette, Frankie Lymon, and Ritchie Valens shake things up. These movies kinda go together, because both spotlight legendary DJ Allan Freed. Freed actually sings (The Rock & Roll Boogie) in “Rock, Rock, Rock!” and in “Go, Johnny, Go!” he plays drums behind Chuck Berry, looking more like a wind-up monkey than most wind-up monkeys. Allan Freed was the first DJ to play black artists’ original versions of rhythm and blues songs over tamed-down covers by white artists. He’s credited with coining the phrase “Rock and Roll,” but he actually appropriated it to make the term “rhythm & blues” more palatable to white audiences. “Rocking and Rolling” had popped up in the lyrics of blues songs for years, and was slang for sex in the black community. Freed plays himself in both movies, as well as the other three films he appeared in. Luckily, the role falls almost within his range. Freed had an amazing run, starring in five rock and roll movies in three years, but he died penniless and an alcoholic after being brought down by The Payola Scandal. Ironically, the only competent acting Freed manages in either movie is when the script for “Rock, Rock, Rock!” requires him to feign drunkenness to get singer Jimmy Clanton out of a jam.
“Rock, Rock, Rock!” is easily the lesser of the two movies. As was often the case in these early rock & roll films, the artists sang their current songs rather than their big hits, and the sheer number of misses makes “Rock, Rock, Rock!” stumble. Only Chuck Berry shows his best side, performing “You Can’t Catch Me.” Frankie Lymon, Eddie Cochran, and Johnny Burnette acquit themselves well, but The Cadillacs, The Flamingos, Jackie Wilson, La Vern Baker and Ritchie Valens swing and miss. Jimmie Cavallo and his House Rockers hit their career high with the title song, a raucous sax-driven number that really moves, daddy-o. “Rock, Rock, Rock!” was (Future Oscar Nominee) Tuesday Weld’s first movie, and she reportedly made a mere $400 for starring in it and lip-synching to Connie Francis’ vocals. There simply aren’t enough high points in the performances to distract you from a pointless plot involving a young girl who’s trying to raise money for a prom dress.
“Go, Johnny, Go!” is another story, though. It was produced by Freed, and shot cheaply in two days. And every dollar is on the screen. Chuck Berry acts, performs, and supplies the title and a very rare lateral duck-walk during a slowed-down version of “Memphis.” He doesn’t slack off, either, performing “Little Queenie,” and “Johnny B. Goode” for good measure. The plot is only slightly better than “Rock’s.” Teenage heartthrob Jimmy Clanton wins a contest to become a pre-fabricated singing star called Johnny Melody. Second-tier artist Jo-Ann Campbell shows that she’s a good singer, but not much of a performer, dancing in front of a giant prop jukebox and records while an audience of white teenagers pretend to go wild, and clap out of time with the dubbed in music. Valerie Harper (TV’s RHODA) is an un-credited dancer in a prom scene, and ubiquitous Phil Silvers clone, Joe Flynn, plays an usher. All-in, there are worse ways to spend an evening, but what makes “Johnny” worth seeing is, of course, the music. It contains Ritchie Valens’ only screen appearance–he died tragically a few months after lip-synching his way through “Ooh My Head.” In addition, you get three of Chuck Berry’s biggest hits, and Eddie Cochran sings “Teenage Heaven.” Surprisingly, Jimmy Clanton doesn’t disappoint, either. Unlike his co-stars, Clanton was a prototypical teen idol, indicative of the Frankies, the Johnnies, and the Fabians who would soon rule the charts after Berry was incarcerated, Little Richard turned his back on secular music, and Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash, effectively closing the book on the first wave of rock and rollers.