Rock Around the Clock Blu-ray Review: It’s Squares-Ville, Man

Rock Around the Clock (1956) features Bill Haley and the Comets riding the success of their seat-ripping, riot-inducing song that appeared in Blackboard Jungle the year prior. Also showcased are the Platters, Tony Martinez, and Freddie Bell and his Bellboys as they lip sync around a plot that involves a love triangle between an attractive young dancer, an older band manager, and an entertainment maven. 

Big bands are dead, and talent manager Steve Hollis (Johnny Johnson) knows it. So he starts to look for new talent in smaller novelty bands or vocalist groups. In a small country town, he comes across a group of annoyingly hip kids (that don’t look like teeangers or country kids at all) who speak that rockin’ jive and he follows them to watch local sensation Bill Haley and his band the Comets. Haley’s Comets pack the place with dancers, and Steve intends to sign them and make a fortune with that unique sound. “It’s not boogie, it isn’t jive, and it isn’t swing; it’s kinda all of them,” he comments to his sidekick Corny (Henry Slate). Along with Haley, they latch on to brother/sister dance combo Jimmy and Lisa Johns (Earl Barton and Lisa Gaye, her pompadour may rival Elvis’) that are “just the most” and act as Haley’s manager/representative. 

Steve has big plans to sign them both to a major talent deal back in New York, if he can swing it. Trouble is, the head of the major talent agency, Corine Talbot (Alix Talton), is after old Steve to marry her but he’s got other plans, plans that include a young 20-something dancer. Talbot desperately wants to see Steve and his rock and roll kids fail, so she plots their downfall. She arranges a gig for them along with Tony Martinez and his (mambo) band (with a gorgeous female singer/dancer and some comic timing) to play at a place where they are sure to fail but they don’t. They’re a hit because the kids know what’s cool and don’t knock the rock. Talbot then has them blacklisted from every venue she can but clever Steve phones a friend that owes him a favor. 

That old friend is none other than legendary disk jockey Alan Freed, who agrees to let them play his venue along with vocal group the Platters backed by the Ernie Freeman Combo and another local group of kids Corny found calling themselves the Bellboys. The show’s a hit and their success leads to them finally signing that deal with Talbot but under one condition regarding Steve and dancing Lisa. Now able to play more venues, they all hit the road on a cross country tour which climaxes on a rocking TV show jamboree. The rest is history as rock and roll conquers the world and bulldozes the way for Elvis, The Beatles, and Beach Blanket Bingo

Columbia Pictures decided to quickly throw together a low budget movie to capitalize on the trending music and the fervor ignited by the Bill Haley song. Too bad Rock Around the Clock misses its mark as it’s contrived and loaded with dead-air, plot filler between performances. The dance sequences make it feel more like a musical than a “jukebox” showcase but it is the first movie to feature these types of rock and roll bands and R&B vocal groups. Its success led to a sequel of sorts in Don’t Knock the Rock (1956) and again featured Alan Freed as well. It also set the formula for this type of movie, not just with its weak plot but establishing that an older type band, Martinez here, and one or two duds a la the Bellboys would be featured along with real rock and roll stars. 

Inspired by those films, Twentieth Century Fox threw their hat into the ring with The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) which highlights the ever wild Little Richard and stars blond bombshell Jayne Mansfield. The Girl Can’t Help It set the gold standard for this type of movie. What sets it apart, aside from its stellar music acts (featuring the return of the Bellboys) is that it’s a parody and knows the plot doesn’t really matter and is only there to give Jayne reasons to walk across the screen. These jukebox showcase movies would eventually morph into the outings made by Elvis, which at first offered him a legitimate shot at acting before they ditched that approach and went with pushing throw-away songs and selling nonsense albums built around lame movies.  

The pitch that this is “the whole story of rock and roll” is complete horse feathers and the angle that there has to be dancing to go with rock and roll music is a contrivance of out-of-touch adults who whipped up this quick script. Added to the mess are the hipster kids who speak that cornball jargon like “crazy, man, crazy,” “Dig, Daddy-O,” and “When the most is on the floor, we give room.” This type of super-happening slang never ages well and is always annoying. There’s a whole scene dedicated to it where Haley plays “See You Later, Alligator” that encourages the jive talk as “kids” dance the happening “new” steps to the new rock and roll sound. These swing dances are essentially the same they’d been doing up in Harlem at the Savoy and over in Los Angeles at the Five Four Ballroom since WWII and most 1950s teens saw them as old hat. Thankfully, there’s some good hip shaking that the camera focuses on as they all cut a rug. 

The Special Feature is an audio commentary with novelist/critic Kim Newman and writer/journalist Barry Forshaw which is very informative and entertaining, more so than the movie itself. Newman’s analysis regarding movies, music, and pop culture are always a treat to listen to. He’s knowledgeable and excited as he speaks about the topics he loves, especially as he provides a unique take as he relates what it was like watching these movies across the pond in England while he was growing up. Kim and Barry also point out that producer Sam Katzman would later go on to make many of Elvis’ movies. While director Fred F. Sears would direct other films that revolve around “novelty” bands and sounds like the cha-cha and the calypso.

Rock Around the Clock is mostly the story of a twisted love triangle between a band manager, a young dancer, and a successful talent agent. Bill Haley rocks, the Platters and Ernie Freeman are on point, Tony Martinez cuts a mean mambo while the Bellboys are pure filler and an attempt to push a band that doesn’t quite have it. It is the first of its kind and I acknowledge that but “the whole story of rock and roll” it ain’t. Sorry Daddy-O, I don’t dig it the most. 

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Joe Garcia III

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