Sunday, November 27, 2011

Rockin' Role

I love rocksploitation films from the early days when the music was new.  Producers figured they could make a quick buck before the fad ended (though the plots were often about how rock and roll was here to stay). The plots are simple.  Some act needs to break out, has something in the way, but finally makes it--and often stuffy types learn not to knock the rock.  Really the plot is just an excuse to hang a bunch of lip-synced numbers from various acts who were probably so happy to be on film that they were paid next to nothing.

One example of the genre, Let's Rock (1958), I'd never seen until recently.  It basically followed the same formula, and certainly looked as cheap as most of them, but was still a bit different.

For one thing, it stars non-rocker Julius LaRosa, playing a character not far removed from himself.  He's a pop singer who's had reasonable success singing ballads but isn't making it now that rock and roll has taken over.  He fights the trend but finally records a rock number and regains his success. (He's so successful he keeps flunkies around and lives in an expensive Manhattan penthouse apartment--$1000 a month!). That's really the whole plot. It should take ten minutes, except we get about an hour where he mopes around before he finally gives in.  The implication, by the way, is that anyone can sing rock and roll, but in fact the music killed LaRosa's career.

Some of the acts are fun.  We get to see The Royal Teens do their classic snot-rock number "Short Shorts" as well as Danny & The Juniors perform "At The Hop."  We also get Paul Anka in an awful number and LaRosa doing a few ballads that remind us why that type of music had to die. Actually, the plot works a bit against itself--LaRosa does his songs for us but we're told over and over that no one likes them any more.  A young Wink Martindale does a number of his own and gets to act as a heel, refusing to let LaRosa do a number on his show because he's so square.  There's also a fine non-rock number from Della Reese, "Lonelyville."

This was the youngest I'd ever seen Wink and Della and a number of other performers, including Conrad Janis as LaRosa's manager.  He's so young he has hair.  (Reminds me a bit of Leonardo DiCaprio.) The film is surprisingly hard-hitting about the music biz. Even if you've got a contract, once your sales slide, you're through.

What sets the film apart the most is the relationship between LaRosa and his songwriting girlfriend played by Phyllis Newman, who's younger here than I've ever seen her.  Didn't even recognize her at first.  She and LaRosa have surprising chemistry. Their scenes are low-key and naturalistic, almost feeling improvisatory at times. (Maybe they couldn't afford second takes.) This is helped by some location shooting in Manhattan.  Rare in cheapo films like these which are mostly shot in front of cheap sets.

Newman definitely has a spark.  Who knows, maybe she could have been the next Natalie Wood if she played her cards right.

I'm not telling you Let's Rock is a classic.  Or even good.  But for the genre, it stands out.


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