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Jamboree! (1957) is an unjustly obscure entry in its narrow genre, but should really be one of the best-known of the rock movies of the 1950s. Produced independently by Vanguard Productions (who also made the essential Rock Rock Rock! the year before) and distributed by Warner Bros, the film can boast some top acts captured on film during their prime, a minimum of distracting "plot," a wide variety of Top 40 music across all charts, and a time capsule-like look into the broadcasting end of the music business thanks to numerous cameos by more than a dozen radio disc jockeys (deejays) from around the globe.
The majority of the music sequences in Jamboree! are simply shot and focus on the artists rather than elaborate sets or props (a good thing). The main exception is the opening scene; most of the film's budget for sets and dancers must have been blown on the number "Record Hop Tonight" by Andy Martin. As Martin and background singers stand off camera, a group of eleven dancers cavort in High Camp fashion on a giant abstract representation of a phonograph and wire record holder. The song itself is more be-bop-pop than rock 'n' roll, which points up an important aspect of the film; the music covers many genres, from country to rockabilly to pop to doo-wop to rock to blues to jazz and more.
The drivers of the plot are introduced in Jamboree! after the opening number, as manager Lew Arthur (Bob Pastine) has lunch with his client, singer Honey Wynn (Freda Holloway). Honey has lost out on an audition for a Broadway revue, as has young singer Pete Porter (Paul Carr), who is managed by Grace Show (Kay Medford). Lew and Grace are not only rival managers, but also former husband-and-wife. Honey and Pete hit it off together and their managers join forces to promote the couple as a singing duo. They go to the famed Brill Building to ask Warren Sykes (David King-Wood), president of the generically-titled "Pop Record Company," if he will let them record a demo of their new duo. Sykes responds, "Bring in the kids at 3:30 on Wednesday. Carl Perkins is cutting at 2:30; he rarely ever uses all of his time - what's left is yours." The comment provides a segue to a sublime filmed record of the great Sun Records rockabilly cat Perkins and his band (Clayton and Jay Perkins and W.S. Holland) ripping through "Glad All Over." The film goes on with short intrusions of plot (conflict arises when Grace talks Pete into splitting up the duo and going out as a solo act), but mostly works in many more musical segments thanks to introductions by real-life radio disc jockeys around the country and even around the world.
Carl Perkins' Sun Records labelmate Jerry Lee Lewis shows up midway through the film to knock out the immortal "Great Balls of Fire," as part of the Jerry Lee Lewis Trio (with J. W. Brown on bass and Russ Smith on drums). Interestingly, The Killer lip-synchs to an alternate version of the tune, not the familiar hit single version. Other notable acts in the film include Fats Domino performing "Wait and See," rocker Charlie Grace doing "Cool Baby," and Buddy Knox swinging with "Hula Love." A baby-faced Frankie Avalon makes his film debut here, lip-synching his early hit "Teacher's Pet," backed by his original group Rocco & His Saints. Country fans were not left out, as Slim Whitman shows up to croon the classic western tune "Unchain My Heart." If there were any older parents who may have stumbled into this movie devoted to Top 40 hits of the day, their patience was rewarded by an appearance by Count Basie and His Orchestra performing their well-known number, "One O'clock Jump." Following this instrumental, Basie's vocalist Joe Williams steps up to perform "I Don't Like You No More." As with other 1950s rock movies, the running time is also filled with many lesser lights - musical acts long forgotten - such as Lewis Lymon & the Teenchords (Lewis was literally Frankie Lymon's less-talented brother), the Four Coins (a poor man's Four Freshman), and the like. In addition, there are a number of songs by the fake musical leads in the story, although they are not a total waste because actress Freda Holloway's vocals were actually recorded by the great Connie Francis.
The producers of Jamboree!, Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky (they would go on to found Amicus Productions in England), came up with a simple and no doubt effective way to generate targeted ballyhoo for their film - they cast no less than 16 radio disc jockeys from a variety of markets as themselves, on the theory that these deejays would plug the film endlessly on their shows upon its release. (The ploy brings to mind a similar stunt from the producers of the Three Stooges feature The Outlaws Is Coming , in which they cast numerous local TV kiddie show hosts in minor roles in the hopes that the film would receive free plugs aimed directly toward the Stooges' TV fans).
The most notable deejay to appear in the film is Dick Clark, then a record-spinner for WFIL in Philadelphia, and whose TV program American Bandstand had just been picked up for national exposure on the ABC Network a few months before. Following his film debut in Jamboree!, Clark would go on to a legendary career as one of the most successful producers in television history. In the movie, Clark appears as the host of a TV telethon raising money for an unspecified "dreaded disease," and introduces a number of other deejays, including some from London, England and Cologne, Germany. Clark was not the only deejay in Jamboree! to go on to bigger and better gigs; Joe Smith of WVDA in Boston later went on to become president of the Warner Brothers Records label.
Jamboree! may have gotten its title indirectly from legendary deejay/promoter Alan Freed (who starred in Vanguard's Rock Rock Rock! the previous year); Freed recorded a half-hour weekly radio show by that name for broadcast on Radio Luxembourg, the powerful "pirate" AM station heard throughout the British Isles and much of Europe. (The show, broadcast on Saturday nights in that area, was wildly popular with teenagers and was the first exposure to rock 'n' roll for many in Britain, including the lads from Liverpool who later called themselves The Beatles).
Critical reaction to Jamboree! was rather dismissive. The critic for Variety called the film "old fashioned in concept, reminiscent of the early days of talking pictures when producers slapped a group of singing acts together." Similarly, the reviewer in the Los Angeles Mirror wrote that Jamboree! was "like a throwback to the early days of Vitaphone musical reels." Presumably, these critics were lamenting the lack of plot, but the repetition of deejays introducing musical numbers makes for a refreshing time capsule from our modern perspective; more plot would have just gotten in the way. Art Fein (writing in Marshall Crenshaw's Hollywood Rock: A Guide to Rock'n'Roll in the Movies) puts it this way: "Why is this little-seen (and even less well known) exploitation film slightly better than its contemporaries? Partly because there's no message, and mainly because they booked two Sun acts....The so-called cameos in this movie are by 16 deejays from all over the globe. Warner Brothers must have thought their word-of-mouth would boost the picture. It didn't..."
Producer: Max Rosenberg, Milton Subotsky
Director: Roy Lockwood
Screenplay: Leonard Kantor, Milton Subotsky (writers)
Cinematography: Jack Etra
Art Direction: Paul Barnes
Music: Neal Hefti
Film Editing: Robert Broekman
Cast: Kay Medford (Grace Show), Bob Pastine (Lew Arthur), Paul Carr (Pete Porter), Freda Holloway (Honey Wynn), David King-Wood (Warren Sykes), Jean Martin (Cindy Styles), Tony Travis (Stage Manager), Leonard Schneider (Assistant Stage Manager), Aaron Schroder (Songwriter)
by John M. Miller