In the mid fifties television had a profound effect on the fortunes of Hollywood and at the same time Rock’n’roll was still in the province of radio and live performances. Good looking young musicians were extremely photogenic and the moguls of Hollywood saw a window of opportunity and began to make movies aimed at the younger audience. Not quite sure what to do the plots of these early Rock’n’roll films were almost always paper thin and the cast built around a package of stars. Juvenile delinquency had attracted some box office success with The Wild One (1953) and Rebel without a cause (1955) but it was only when Bill Haley’s ‘Rock around the clock’ was played over the credits of Blackboard Jungle (1955) an other teen drama did the full force of Rock’n’roll hit the screen. Blackboard Jungle was for many teenagers around the world their first real experience of the new and wild style of music. Despite the promising start the early rock movies were inept by comparison to Blackboard Jungle and now ironically form a showcase of contemporary music.
In 1956, Rock, rock rock (1956) saw the introduction of Chuck Berry to the silver screen as well as many other artists including; Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, La Verne Baker, Connie Francis, The Moonglows and The Flamingos. The story line was simple and featured Alan Freed (The King of Rock’n’roll) as the parental friend of the all American teenager. A role he reprised twice over in Rock around the Clock (1956) and Don’t knock the rock (1956). The former was directed by Fred F. Sears and produced by Sam ‘King of the B Movies’ Katzman who later went on to produce several Elvis Presley movies in the 60s. It was a bio-flick of sorts which dramatically recreated the fictional origins of the musical genre. The plot was incidental to the music but where ever the film was shown riots broke out in theatres and couples publically danced in isle and others fought. Bill Haley and the Comets headlined the movie with Alan Freed playing himself. Cameos from The Platters and Freddie Bell and the Bellboys were included among others and the movie became a major box office success.
Don't Knock the Rock (1956) immediately followed and was also directed by Sears and produced by Katzman. The plot revolved around Alan Dale (himself a very good singer) playing a rock’n’roller who discovers the authorities in his home town have banned his kind of music. With the help of disc jockey, Alan Freed and Bill Haley and His Comets, the kids set out to prove that the music is not as bad an influence as the disapproving adults think. Cameos from Little Richard, The Treniers, Dave Appell and the Applejacks gave a strong Rock’n’roll presentation but the film was not as commercially successful as its predecessor.
The girl can’t help it (1956) starred Jayne Mansfield, Tom Ewell and Edmond O’Bryan, three consummate actors and was written and directed by Frank ‘Tish Tash’ Tashlin. This was a more serious effort which satirised the Rock’n’roll business. Many believe this was a landmark film and consider it to be the first real Rock’n’ roll musical which established the genre as a main feature as opposed to simple exploitation. It was shot in Technicolor and Bobby Troop wrote the original score, with Little Richard singing the title song. The film features a wide array of artists including Nino Tempo, Eddie Fontaine, Julie London, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, Eddie Cochrane, Ray Anthony Orchestra, Fats Domino, and the Platters being the more notable. The girl can’t help it became a box office success.
Jamboree (or Disc Jockey Jamboree in the UK) (1957) was directed by Roy Lockwood and could be argued represents the first presentation of music videos. The plot surrounds a boy girl duo that become overnight sensations but run into problems when their managers try to turn them into solo acts. Against this backdrop are cameo appearances from some of the biggest names of rock 'n' roll lip-syncing to their own recordings. These include: Frankie Avalon Jimmy Bowen; Fats Domino, Charlie Gracie Buddy Knox, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Slim Whitman. Dick Clark also as part of the plot introduces a number of disc jockey's from across the world; Jack Jackson (ATV) and Chris Payne (BBC); Werner Goetze (Bayerische RundFunk); and Chris Howland (West Deutche RundFunk). The idea was to reinforce in the American audiences the commercial international appeal for Rock’n’ roll.
In the movie 1957 Mr Rock ‘n’ Roll, Alan Freed sets out again to prove that rock and roll doesn't cause juvenile delinquency. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, The Moonglows, Lavern Baker, Teddy Randazzo, Clyde McPhatter, and Brook Benton are on hand to help.
Elvis Presley’s screen debut was as an actor in Love me tender (1956). He sang the title tune over the credits but otherwise the singing was restricted to being ‘in character.’
In his second movie Loving you (1957), Elvis played Deke Rivers, a truck driver with a penchant for singing and a raw animal magnetism. The story of his rise to fame is partly autobiographical and arguably shows Elvis in his most natural on screen. Lizabeth Scott, James Gleason and Wendell Corey give solid support and Presley performed seven song, among them, Got a lot o’ livin to do, Party Doll and Teddy Bear.
It took until his third movie Jailhouse Rock (1957), to allow the singer to do what he did well on screen and in doing so broadened his commercial appeal.
High School Confidential (1958) was directed by Jack Arnold and starred Mamie Van Doren, Russ Tamblyn, Jan Sterling, John Drew Barrymore and Jackie Coogan. The film also featured a cameo with Jerry Lee Lewis singing the title tune.
Go Johnny Go (1958) was another film featuring Alan Freeman and pack of rockers including Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson, Ritchie Valens, The Cadillacs, The Flamingos, and Eddie Cochrane. By this time, certainly in North America, it was generally thought within the industry that Rock’n’roll had played itself out.
Meantime in the UK the smaller film industry were mirroring Hollywood with lightweight plots to feature popular UK rock’n’rollers. Tommy Steele appeared in The Tommy Steele Story (aka Rock around the world) in 1957. A bio pic featured 14 popular songs many by Tommy Steele but also others including Nancy Whisky and the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group.
Unlike American Television in the UK there were programs to appeal to young audiences which featured prominently the new music. American Bandstand was ostensibly a program about dancing which would eventually include popular vocalists but in the UK the Six Five Special (BBC) and later Oh Boy (ATV) thrived on Rcck’n’Roll. In the same year it was launched on the television there was a highly successful film of the Six Five Special (1957) which featured Petula Clark as an actress and singer. The plot revolved around a cast preparing for the program and featured 16 well known UK performers including Jim Dale, Lonnie Donegan, John Barry Seven, Lord Rockingham’s Eleven, the King Brothers, and Don Lang.
In the 1958 low budget film Expresso Bongo Cliff Richard had his acting debut. The plot follows the rise and fall of a young star (Cliff Richard) caught in the hands of a Svengali. Cliff Richard appears with the Drifters (aka The Shadows).
Cliff Richards’ next movie was Serious Charge (1959), and dealt with juvenile delinquency in England. Both gritty and harsh for the time the film dealt with serious issues including child molestation. Cliff Richard sang versions of "Living Doll," "Mad," and "No Turning Back" and there was plenty dance and jive scenes as part of the story. UK rock’n’roll films of this period were more in keeping with the British movement of the ‘angry young men’ which prevailed in theatre and literature.
Worth a listen:
Bill Haley and the Comets
Rock around the clock
See You Later Alligator
Don't Knock the Rock
Rip it Up
You can’t catch me
Frankie Lymon and the Teen-Agers
I’m not a juvenile delinquent
La Vern Baker
Tra La La
Over and over again
Would I Be Crying
Cry Me a River
Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps
Twenty Flight Rock
You'll Never, Never Know
Only You (And You Alone)
The Great Pretender
Freddie Bell and the Bellboys
Teach you to rock
Dave Appell and the Applejacks
The girl can’t help it
Long tall sally
Jerry Lee Lewis
Great balls of fire
Glad all over
Love me tender
Got a lot o’ livin to do