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Rock 'n' roll exploded across America during the 1950s as a musical and cultural force. Launched by small recording labels that combined the sounds of pop, country-western, and rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll became controversial partly because it embraced African American performers and introduced them to mainstream audiences, and partly because the invigorating beat stirred the youth of America. The media sensationalized the latter by tying the new music to juvenile delinquency; radio promoted rock 'n' roll via a new generation of jive-talking deejays who were idolized by teenagers; and television reflected the music's popularity by booking rock n' roll acts for variety programs.
Hollywood movies boosted the new youth culture and expanded the popularity of rock 'n' roll by exploiting both to attract teenage audiences. The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955) tackled the issues of generational differences and the pressures of youth, but the former used jazz as the background music while the latter featured a typical Hollywood score. However, when director Richard Brooks selected a bona fide rock 'n' roll song, "Rock Around the Clock," to open Blackboard Jungle (1955), the new music became permanently associated with youth gone wild. The movie also rapidly spread the gospel of rock 'n' roll. In 1954, Bill Haley and the Comets had released "Rock Around the Clock" to little fanfare, but the song's association with the movie propelled it to the top of the charts.
Sam Katzman, a savvy independent producer who had been making movies since 1933, followed the publicity surrounding Blackboard Jungle and noted the role "Rock Around the Clock" played in the film's notoriety. Katzman, who was nicknamed King of the Quickies, thrived on low-budget, quickly produced films that exploited fads and trends. During the 1950s, the high point of Katzman's career, the "King" averaged 17 features and three serials a year, with most costing less than $500,000. Katzman signed Bill Haley and the Comets, secured the rights to the song, found a bland script, and quickly produced the rock 'n' roll musical Rock Around the Clock in 1956. Costing only $200,000, the movie earned around $1 million and launched the genre known as the teen musical. Before the buzz over the film had faded, Katzman followed it up with Don't Knock the Rock (1956), also featuring Bill Haley and the Comets.
As the decade continued, the teen musical flourished, helping to counter the public's initial view of rock 'n' roll as a negative influence. The high end of the teen musical was represented by the Presley pictures, which were A-budget films produced by Hal Wallis; the low end included several quickly produced movies with legendary deejay Alan Freed appearing as himself. The Freed movies included Katzman's Rock Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Rock, Go, Johnny, Go! , and Rock, Rock, Rock . Freed, who claimed to have coined the term "rock 'n' roll" in reference to the music, was a tireless promoter of the new sound through his popular radio program on WINS in New York City and his stage shows featuring the era's hottest rock 'n' roll acts. The Freed films, which were little more than visual jukeboxes, were packed with wall-to-wall musical performances tied together with the barest of storylines that teenagers might find relevant-proms, dating, generation conflict, etc. The appearance of the older Freed in these films sanctioned the new music and helped mediate some of the negative criticism aimed at the youth culture.
Rock, Rock, Rock stars Tuesday Weld in her first big-screen role as Dori, a teenage girl in a dilemma over a prom dress. Her father has closed her charge account to show her the value of money, and she must come up with a plan to raise the money herself. Complicating her life is Gloria, the new girl who schemes to lure away Dori's talented boyfriend, Tommy. When Tommy wins Alan Freed's talent show, Gloria moves in on the unsuspecting boy by accusing Dori of scamming her over a prom dress. The truth comes out at the prom, where Freed drops by with his rock 'n' roll show, and Tommy and Dori are reunited.
Rock, Rock, Rock features 20 performances during its 85-minute running time, averaging a song every 4 minutes. Even Dori sings a handful of tunes, though Tuesday Weld is dubbed by Connie Francis, who actually received billing in the opening credits. Apparently 17-year-old Francis auditioned for the part of Dori, but 13-year-old Weld won the role. Weld had been a child model whose mother pushed her as the family's primary breadwinner. By the time the cool-headed blonde appeared in Rock, Rock, Rock, she was already an experienced working girl.
Despite the debut performance by Weld, Rock, Rock, Rock is Freed's film all the way. The musical haphazardly combines songs integrated into the slight storyline with dynamic onstage performances. Dori tends to burst into a love ballad while pouring her heart out to best friend Arabella over a soda at the malt shop, but the rest of the acts perform as guests on Freed's television and stage shows, and the veteran emcee introduces them quickly and efficiently. Among the highlights is lanky Chuck Berry in a flashy white suit who effortlessly belts out "You Can't Catch Me." Leaning over slightly while wielding his guitar, Berry stomps his feet, sways side to side, and duck walks across the stage in his signature move. The do-wop group The Flamingoes flawlessly harmonize on "Would I Be Crying," and red-hot Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers sing two numbers, "Baby, Baby" and "I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent." The latter is the film's only nod to rock 'n' roll's reputation as a negative influence. Rhythm and blues artist LaVern Baker belts out "Tra La La," and the musical marks the only film appearance of The Johnny Burnette Trio, an influential but short-lived rockabilly act who sings "Lonesome Train."
Several singers and groups now lost to time also make appearances, giving the film added significance for pop-music historians or scholars. The Three Chuckles, an energetic if mediocre trio of rockers, sing "Thanks to You" and "Won't You Give Me a Chance," and the forgotten Cirino and the Bowties perform the forgettable "Ever Since I Can Remember." Novelty act Baby Ivy Schulman, a six-year-old girl with a big voice, shouts out "Rock, Pretty Baby," and Freed's own Alan Freed's Rock 'n' Roll Band (sometimes billed as the Rock 'n' Roll Aggregation) perform "Right Now, Right Now" and "Rock 'n' Roll Boogie" with the deejay intoning the lyrics in a sing-song voice while the band plays behind him.
Freed knew how to exploit his film appearances for maximum effect. He owned ten percent of Rock, Rock, Rock, in addition to the publishing rights to 15 of the songs through his company, Snapper Music. He also collected BMI performance credits through the Rock 'n' Roll Aggregation. Freed spearheaded the production of a soundtrack LP, though the album was not offered for sale because the rock 'n' roll acts in the movie belonged to six different record labels. Instead, the LP was sent to 600 major deejays across the country, who promoted the movie by playing the tunes on the air. In exchange for participating in the album, the six labels were able to advertise their hits via stand-up displays in the lobbies of participating theaters. Freed also organized a live show based on the movie, and the show toured during Rock, Rock, Rock's initial run.
Freed's devotion to rock 'n' roll and his predilection for deal-making landed him in trouble for most of the 1950s and 1960s. Industry stalwarts, music critics, and media pundits repeatedly attacked rock 'n' roll as it overtook pop music in popularity, and Freed made an easy target for their criticisms. His Big Beat stage shows were banned in several major cities; in 1958, when a riot ensued in Boston after one of his shows, Freed was charged with inciting a riot and anarchy. Two years and $30,000 later, the charges were dropped. During that time, he filed for bankruptcy and quit WINS because they failed to support him in his legal difficulties. He landed at WABC radio in New York and also hosted a TV dance party. The following year, he was at the center of a payola scandal when he was accused of accepting money, gifts, and favors for playing particular records on the air. When he refused to sign a statement denying he participated in payola, he was fired from both his radio and television gigs. Payola accusations continued to dog him in 1960 and 1962. Freed finally pleaded guilty to two charges of commercial bribery. He was fined only $300 and given a six-month suspended sentence. Despite the light sentence, his career in radio was ruined.
Freed was indicted for income tax evasion in 1964-just as the British Invasion propelled rock 'n' roll music in a different direction and made superstars of a new generation of musicians and performers. A broken man and a relic from the past, Freed died at age 43.
Producers: Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg
Director: Will Price
Screenplay: Milton Subotsky, based on a story by Subotsky and Phyllis Coe
Cinematography: Morris Hartzband
Editor: Blandine Hafela, Robert Broekman
Art Director: Paul M. Heller
Music Director: Milton Subotsky
Cast: Dori Graham (Tuesday Weld), Himself (Alan Freed), Gloria (Jacqueline Kerr), Arabella (Fran Manfred), Mr. Graham (Jack Collins), Mrs. Graham (Carol Moss), Miss Silky (Eleanor Swayne), Melville (David Winters), Mr. Barker (Bert Conway), Mr. Bimble (Lester Mack).
by Susan Doll