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June 17, 2005

Go, Johnny, Go!

Paul Landres - 1959

I'm a sucker for rock and roll movies from the 50s. I know that they were usually shot on the cheap, with inconsequential story lines, shoddy sets, amateurish acting, etc. But I keep on seeing any film I may have not seen previously for the music. If you prune away the lame stories, you have filmed documents of some great performances.

Go, Johnny, Go! was produced by Alan Freed, the disc jockey credited for creating the term "rock n roll". Freed is also most associated with the payola scandal, taking money to play certain songs. This movie came out a few months before Freed's career was destroyed. Freed is both one of the film's lead characters and its weakest link.

The story is about Freed's search for a new singer to be named Johnny Melody. The elusive singer is portrayed by Jimmy Clanton. Clanton's star rose in 1958, when he was only 18 and sank a couple of years later after being drafted. By the time Clanton was ready to resume his career, The Beatles changed the course of rock. It's some of the other performers who appear in this movie who have remained more interesting and vital.

The most frustrating scene for me involves Richie Valens. Most of the time you see Valens sitting at a club with three women watching Alan Freed lamely drumming for Chuck Berry. Afterwards, Valens is invited to sing, "Ooh, My Head", a raw rocker that stands out against some of the post-Elvis blandness of the time. Unfortunately, we don't see the full performance as the film cuts to Freed chatting and later leaving to chase after Johnny Melody. I suppose that I should give the film makers some slack as no one knew that Valens would die a few months before the film's release. Still, it's a performance that is more watchable than the silliness of novelty singer Jo-Ann Campbell. Valens, by the way, looked more like La Bamba co-star Esai Morales than Lou Diamond Phillips.

The singing and dancing boy bands of the late 90s have nothing on The Flamingos or The Cadillacs. Maybe it's me, but I can't say anything bad about doo-wop, and The Flamingos are one of the few groups that rightly belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Cadillacs were a doo wop band that by the late 50s specialized in novelty numbers with two and a half minute stories. The songs performed, "Jay Walker" about a jay walker and traffic police, and "Please Mr. Johnson", about a broke teenager begging for part-time work at the corner drugstore in exchange for candy and Coke are cute. But the songs we usually remember The Flamingos and The Caddilacs for are not in this movie. I still associate The Flamingos version of "I Only have Eyes for You" with American Graffiti. The Cadillacs most famous song is "Speedo" with the line that inspired writers Tom Robbins and Richard Price: "They often call me Speedy but my real name is Mr. Earl."

One other singer I ended up researching was Harvey. I guess back in 1959 no last name was needed as most of his fans knew him as the lead singer for The Moonglows, later known as Harvey and the Moonglows. The Moonglows were the other top doo-wop group of the time, rivaling The Flamingos. Anyways, Harvey is actually Harvey Fuqua, singer, song writer and producer. He is also the uncle of Antoine Fuqua, director of Training Day. Another reason to appreciate Google and IMDB.com.

Eddie Cochran is OK doing "Teenage Heaven", but he's more energetic in The Girl Can't Help It. (Hey 20th Century Fox, why isn't this out on DVD?)

Chuck Berry actually gives an amiable performance. He looks sort of like a skinny Billy Dee Williams. Most remarkably, he keeps a straight face while refering to Jimmy Clanton as "swingin". The songs "Memphis","Johnny B. Goode" and "Little Queenie" are here, along with the duckwalk.

Joe Flynn makes a practice run as McHale's Navy's Captain Binghampton in a brief appearance as a theater usher. I guess some of the supporting actors had karmic ties. Flynn, along with supporting actors Milton Frome and Frank Wilcox would appear in various pairings in other films, particularly Disney comedies in the late 60s.

I was unfamiliar with director Paul Landres. As it turns out from looking at his filmography, I probably have seen more of his work than I remember. Landres has mostly been directing tv series since 1950. Considering that he helmed episodes of Topper, Maverick, Cheyenne, Bronco, Bonanza, Hawaiian Eye, and 77 Sunset Strip, the chances are good I saw some of his work. Not that Go, Johnny, Go! has anything to distinguish itself other than being less inane than the rock exploitation films from Sam Katzman and Fred Sears like Rock Around the Clock. But there is one brief moment when Jimmy Clanton is recording in a studio. The film cuts to a shot of a sax player, his back arched back while he plays. The shot is tightly composed so that you just see the musician from the shoulders up and his sax in full. In the back you can see the drummer looking on. It's a memorable shot in an otherwise forgettable movie. But sometimes the point of watching a movie is to seek out those great moments of brief, even accidental, artistic expression.

For those interested in knowing a bit more about Alan Freed, check out Jewsrock.org. The site also relays information on the Jewish background of The Flamingos!

Posted by peter at June 17, 2005 04:36 PM