Before watching the movie:
The title pretty much says it all. There’s a plot about high schoolers and some kind of competition, but this is basically a concert film.
The cast is full of appearances from acts who were famous in their day, but the main name I recognize now is Chuck Berry, and I think I’ve seen much more of him now than at the top of his career, so that will be interesting. When I think of Chuck Berry in the 50s, I think of Marty McFly.
After watching the movie:
Teenage girl Dori is in love with her boyfriend Tommy, and she’s worried about keeping him, since he hasn’t yet asked her to the prom. At least one other girl, Gloria, thinks Tommy is the cutest boy in school, and is determined to steal him away. Since Gloria is wearing an extravagant strapless evening dress to the dance (in Tommy’s favorite color), Dori wants an evening dress too. But her lack of financial sense causes her father to cut off her credit at the dress shop at just the wrong time, forcing her to find a way to earn the money herself, while Tommy’s singing skills have won him a spot on Alan Freed’s show, certainly making him more desirable to the other girls.
A lot of the movies I’ve reviewed in the last year or so have come from a collection of films that fell into public domain. Often they’ve been movies that I feel sorry for the copyright holder for having lost them. Sometimes I wouldn’t be surprised if they let it lapse on purpose. For the first fifteen minutes, this was one of the latter. The first act of plot had hack writing, wooden performances from the teens, and spotty direction. However, once all the major players were established, the movie turned over to about 20 minutes of just showing Freed’s rock and roll TV show, and for the first time, it felt like the movie was comfortable with itself, just showcasing half a dozen songs. When it got around to returning to the meat of the story, it just concerned itself with telling the story, and the quality was greatly improved (even if the plot itself was better suited to a half-hour sitcom). Finally, as the TV show invaded the story earlier, the story’s denouement invaded the TV show.
The saving grace of the clunky first act was Dori’s father, played by Jack Collins. He doesn’t seem to have achieved much notoriety, but for a while it seemed like he was the only major player who knew how to act, playing an occasionally comical authority figure splendidly. Eventually, I came to notice how much I liked to watch Jacqueline Kerr play Gloria as well, as a calculating, deliciously smarmy high school villain. I had some trouble believing Dori’s worries about Tommy leaving her when his affection for her was so overt, but I don’t think that was so much Teddy Randazzo’s fault as him just playing the character as written. It’s hard to seem like an easily lost prize when the first act requires him to sing a tender ballad about wanting to provide her with everything she could ever need.
The best music is definitely from the big names brought in by the show. Chuck Berry, the Moonglows, and the Flamingos, obviously, are great acts, but the standout best was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, a group I’d never heard of, but I apparently should have. The five songs that aren’t part of Freed’s show aren’t terrible, just out of place. “The Things Your Heart Needs” and “Little Blue Wren” are well enough justified and performed that they stand out as good numbers, and “Rock, Pretty Baby” would be a lot more fun on a record than shoehorned in here as Dori’s best friend’s kid sister somehow pawned off on the Bowties so the teens can go to the movies. Special mention goes to “Rock and Roll Boogie”, which is enjoyably performed by Freed’s Rock and Roll Band and Big Al Sears on saxophone, but rather sloppily sung over by Freed himself. I would have enjoyed it much more as an instrumental act.
I came in expecting a paper-thin plot used as an excuse to play a lot of music, and that’s basically what this is. When it decides to be one or the other, it does pretty well at both, but it’s no surprise the music wins out. I’ve loved the music of the 50s since I was very young, and not only did I get to enjoy 21 songs I’d never heard before, I also learned some new names for future listening. Almost sixty years later, Rock, Rock, Rock! is still living up to its purpose.