The Archaeology of Rock and Roll
Archaeologists of pop music need to see this film, especially as it was made so early and is specifically about the early days of rock and roll. It was released in 1958, but shot in 1957, and one of the characters in the film says: 'Rock and roll has existed for two years now.' If you have your fast-forward button safely in your hand, so that you can whizz through the appalling ballads of Julius LaRosa and some of the other terrible numbers such as the Tyrones, and some boring parts of the story, this film repays watching. It is chiefly notable for including film of Danny and the Juniors performing the number one hit of 1957, 'At the Hop'. By 1958, kids were no longer using the word 'hop', and were embarrassed by it, because it was 'last year's word', and they didn't wish to be thought to be behind the times. But this song was played for years because it is particularly lively and catchy, and it still figures in the Golden Oldies today. Danny and the Juniors look like awkward bank clerks standing there inert in their suits and ties, singing unconvincingly 'let's go to the hop'. No spangle-wear had yet appeared in pop, at least not in this film. Another famous song in the film, sung by the Royal Teens, is the musically uninteresting 'Short Shorts'. It is sung in a whining monotone, like a group of spoilt brats squawling to mamma that 'we like short shorts', and that is exactly how it was received. At that stage, before drugs had come in, kids thought the most extreme behaviour was for girls to show their legs and whine to their parents about it. Short shorts came out in 1956. I know that because my older Cousin Betty was a model and was on magazine covers in them, and never stopped talking about them. Short shorts were brought back a decade later, at the end of the 1960s, as 'hot pants'. The finest musical number in the film, and the only sophisticated one, is Della Reese singing 'Lonelyville'. She was Nina Simone before Nina Simone was. The story is not as boring as you might imagine for such a cheaply produced kids' picture whose purpose was to promote rock and roll music to 16 year-olds. There are some interesting scenes where the head of a music label lays it on the line to a singer's manager about the economics of pop music, how ballads are out, and says of rock and roll 'this is what the sixteen year-olds are buying' and anybody who won't record it will be 'dropped from the label'. Roy Hamilton, who died tragically aged only 40, is shown in the film recording two songs. He was one of the top singers of those days, with a personality like Harry Belafonte, and a smile always on his face. He had come out of the gospel tradition and had a properly trained voice. Ironically, for the theme of this film, Roy Hamilton was famous for singing ballads, and later singers such as the Righteous Brothers copied him but made an over-the-top pastiche out of his style. Paul Anka is shown aged 16 singing a pop number so badly, one cringes. At that age, every note he sang was out of tune, and he was absolutely terrible. He got it together later. Phyllis Newman is very sweet and fetching in the role of the songwriter girl in the story. Because she has ideas and wants to talk about them, Julius LaRosa can only categorize her as 'a kook'. At that time, girls won't supposed to think. There are some nice location scenes of New York City. The film could be worse, and considering its significance, it is what it is.
- Dec 26, 2007
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