Rock Around The Clock
US (1956) Dir. Fred F. Sears
Hollywood has never been shy to leap onto a bandwagon if it means bums in seats, even when something is considered rebellious and abhorrent to the uptight killjoys of middle America, such as in 1956 when a new musical style begat the most feared creature of all – the teenager!
Rock & Roll had slipped out of the womb of the blues – after a little cross fertilisation with country and gospel – and captured the imagination, ears and hearts of kids across American and later the world. This film was the first to capitalise on this latest phenomenon and boasted a line-up of some of the early movers and groovers of the genre, given many kids a chance to put faces to the voices they had only heard on record.
This hastily made piece of fluff is a fictional suggestion of how this exciting new music movement became a paradigm shifting revolution against the best efforts of the conservative establishment. Dance band promoter Steve Hollis (Johnny Johnston) is finding it harder to draw crowds with big bands and is looking for something fresh. One Saturday night Hollis and his partner Corny LaSalle (Henry Slate) end up in a small farming town named Strawberry Spring where all the kids converge into a small hall.
Hollis discovers a hot new sound called Rock & Roll courtesy of house band Bill Haley & His Comets (themselves), while the packed dancefloor is lead by brother and sister dancers Lisa (Lisa Gaye) and Jimmy Johns (Earl Barton). Hollis wants to take the band national so he petitions an old flame, top New York booking agent Corinne Talbot (Alix Talton), to help out. However as Hollis won’t marry her, Talbot instead sets out to ruin Hollis by sabotaging the band’s rise.
For the sake of any young un’s reading this review, Bill Haley’s seminal classic Rock & Roll anthem was not inspired by this film, this film was inspired by the song’s success. hopefully you should be aware that Rock Around The Clock first appeared a year earlier in the teen rebellion film Blackboard Jungle. While briefly heard over the opening credits, the song is merely a convenient marketing tool to get the attention of the kids – and it worked, making a healthy profit, spawning the inevitable spin-offs and rip offs.
As far as real Rock & Roll heavyweight presence goes, this film is rather slim as the genre was still in its infancy and many of the legends had yet to surface. Bill Haley, already in his thirties, was the main flag bearer and understandably the star attraction, getting five complete sings and three further snippets while the other acts settled for two each. The Platters, a black harmony group, were big at the time and while their classic hits, Only You and The Great Pretender, are featured they ironically represent the type of music Rock & Roll is supposed to be an alternative to!
Haley is supported on the Rock & Roll front by the rather energetic but long forgotten Freddie Bell and The Bell Boys (whose original cover of Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog inspired Elvis to record it, trivia fans) while playing for the conservative contingent is Tony Martinez and His Band, a Latin combo playing mambo and Salsa music, which pales next to Rock & Roll.
As a part of Talbot’s plan against Hollis, she books Martinez and The Comets to play a prestigious girls’ school graduation dance hoping The Comets’ music will upset everyone. It fails of course – largely as Hollis told Martinez beforehand to not play anything exciting – forcing Talbot to play even dirtier. She tries to buy Hollis into marrying her, then threatens to blackball him nationwide, so Hollis calls in a favour from an old friend Alan Freed (himself) to promote a live show which, naturally, is a success.
For those who don’t know, Alan Freed is the radio DJ who broke Rock & Roll in the US and subsequently is a major factor in all of these early cash-in films, usually playing himself as MC to these gigs.
With a 75 minute ruin time there is no real room to fully explore the feud between Hollis and Talbot, so the ups and downs of the group’s fortune is glossed over with the camp Hollis winning every time. There is a subplot involving a romance between Hollis and Lisa – who must be half his age – which infuriates Talbot but gives her a trump card to play in sealing the fate of the band. Despite the age gap and the speed of this romance, Lisa’s brother Jimmy never seems to have an opinion about it like most brothers would!
But the plot is purely functional, a way to move from song to song without turning this film into a concert showcase. It’s hard to imagine who Rock & Roll was considered so hideously repellent and “The Devil’s Music” when the presentation here is so tame and hidebound. Everyone is smartly dressed in suits and the performances are so uniformly structured and safe they are about as much threat to anyone as a gnat passing wind.
I do want to quickly make a point about the Tony Martinez Band which has a lone female member (her identity is a mystery even to Google), a tall woman in a figure hugging dress whose role it appears is to rhythmically move up and down on the spot, like a rubber hipped antecedent of Bez from Happy Mondays – except far better looking of course!
As a historical document capturing the zeitgeist moment of the nascent days of Rock & Roll, the flaws in Rock Around The Clock as a piece of cinema can be charitably overlooked. There is no need for any forensic dissection, just enjoy this as fun trip back in time to the start of a musical revolution.