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It certainly isn't the first film to have been inspired by a hit song but Rock Around the Clock (1956) was the first movie to showcase the new music of the fifties - rock 'n' roll - in a low-budget diversion targeted directly at teenage audiences. Although the song was previously heard over the opening credits to Blackboard Jungle a year earlier, where it caused a sensation, it was this unpretentious feature that really capitalized on the hit record and the musicians behind it, Bill Haley and His Comets. Masterminded by producer Sam Katzman, with Fred F. Sears directing, Rock Around the Clock was responsible for spawning countless imitations including Katzman's sequel Don't Knock the Rock (1956) but the original has a nervous energy and sense of fun that is hard to resist.
Serving as the archetype for the many teen musicals that would follow, Rock Around the Clock presents an obscurity-to-fame scenario where an unknown band comes out of nowhere (in this case a small town called Strawberry Springs) to become the headliners at a New York concert hosted by the country's hippest disc jockey, Alan Freed (playing himself). It all begins when band manager Steve Hollis (Johnny Johnston), bored with his current gig, hits the road, looking for a fresh new sound to revive his career and interest in popular music. As soon as he hears Bill Haley and His Comets' brand of swing, boogie and rhythm and blues, his calling is clear. The fact that he's also extremely attracted to Haley's manager, Lisa Johns (Lisa Gaye), is just icing on the cake. While the plot and the actors are serviceable at best, the real attraction here, of course, is the music which includes six songs by Bill Haley and His Comets including the title song (played twice), "See You Later Alligator," and "Razzle Dazzle." There are also appearances by The Platters performing their hits, "The Great Pretender" and "Only You," Freddie Bell and His Bellboys play "Giddyup Dingdong" and "I'm Gonna Teach You How to Rock," and Tony Martinez and His Band brings a Spanish influence to the mix with renditions of "Mambo Capri," "Sad and Lonely," and "Codfish and Potatoes."
One amusing aspect of Rock Around the Clock is that Bill Haley doesn't fit the stereotype of the typical rock star. Hefty, stiff in manner and well past the age of his screaming fans, he certainly doesn't look hip but his music proves the opposite as his rocking rhythms send the teenagers into a gyrating frenzy. Ironically, Haley and his bandmates did not perform their music live for the movie with the exception of "Rudy's Rock." They lip-synched to the recorded versions of their hits which, in the case of some of the Comets, is odd because they were mimicking songs performed by former musicians no longer in Haley's band. Guitarist Franny Beecher, for example, is "performing" the music that was originally recorded by Danny Cedrone who died long before the movie went into production.
As expected, the older generation did not take kindly to this new music (it would be classified as 'rockabilly' today) and the film began to encounter problems in certain communities where religious and civic leaders urged a boycott of Rock Around the Clock. According to John Swenson in his biography of Bill Haley, "The Rock Around the Clock ban was part of a growing backlash against rock & roll mounted by authorities who were alternately confused, angered and frightened by the phenomenon. The 28th March 1956 edition of The New York Times carried a story from Hartford, Connecticut, headlined 'Rock & Roll Called "Communicable Disease." A psychiatrist named Francis J. Braceland termed it a 'cannibalistic and tribalistic' sort of music. 'It is insecurity and rebellion,' he said, 'that impels teenagers to wear "ducktail" haircuts, wear zoot suits and carry on boisterously at rock & roll affairs." Integrated teenage audiences were also a matter of concern, particularly in the South, in this pre-Civil Rights era where the races rarely if ever mixed socially. The situation became so tense that Haley often found himself serving as the spokesman for this new music. "Rock and roll does help to combat racial discrimination," he said at the time. "We have performed to mixed groups all over the country and have watched the kids sit side by side just enjoying the music while being entertained by white and negro performers sharing the same stage."
Rock Around the Clock encountered further controversy when it was distributed internationally. According to the American Film Institute's research, "Sep 1956 news items noted that in London, teenage audiences became so agitated that the theatre manager had to stop the film and appeal to them to take their seats. Due to the furor the film caused in London, the Rank organization decided to restrict screenings to six days a week. Another Sep 1956 news item noted that the picture was banned in small English towns because of its raucous reception in London. According to an Oct 1956 HR news item, after the film's first showings in Norway, teenagers stormed through the streets of Oslo, shouting "more rock!"
The movie certainly wouldn't cause that reaction today but at the time the music of Bill Haley and His Comets was revolutionary in its impact. Sadly, Haley's reputation as a trailblazer was short-lived as he was soon eclipsed by such monumental innovators as Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley. Nevertheless, he continued to be a popular attraction at rock 'n' roll revivals in later years and could rightly claim that his signature song became the anthem for all teenagers in the fifties (Haley died in 1981). The film Rock Around the Clock remains a fitting tribute to Haley and an excellent introduction to his style and is also significant as Alan Freed's screen debut; he would go on to play himself in several more films (Rock, Rock, Rock , Go, Johnny, Go , etc.) before his career was significantly stalled by the "Payola" scandal of the late fifties when prominent disc jockeys were accused of accepting bribes from music industry reps in exchange for favorable airplay.
Producer: Sam Katzman
Director: Fred F. Sears
Screenplay: Robert E. Kent
Cinematography: Benjamin H. Kline
Art Direction: Paul Palmentola
Film Editing: Saul A. Goodkind and Jack Ogilvie
Cast: Johnny Johnston (Steve Hollis), Alix Talton (Corinne Talbot), Lisa Gaye (Lisa Johns), John Archer (Mike Dodd), Henry Slate (Corny LaSalle); As themselves - musicians Bill Haley, Rudy Pompilli, Al Rex, Franny Beecher, Johnny Grande, Ralph Jones, Billy Williamson, Tony Williams, Zola Taylor, Herb Reed, David Lynch, Paul Robi.
by Jeff Stafford
Bill Haley: The Daddy of Rock and Roll by John Swenson