Go, Johnny, Go! (1959) was the last of those B-pictures to feature “Mr. Rock ‘n Roll,” just before his career came crashing down due to the early 60s “payola” scandal in the radio industry. Freed, who demonstrated admirable integrity by refusing to commit perjury by denying he had ever participated in “payola,” lost his New York broadcasting license (in addition to paying a hefty fine) and finished out his career with stations on the West Coast and Florida before his death (cirrhosis of the liver and uremia) on January 20, 1965.
His discovery will be dubbed “Johnny Melody” and promoted as a rock ‘n roll sensation as only the popular rock ‘n roll deejay can. A young orphan (Jimmy Clanton) whose actual name is Johnny (we never learn his real last name, because orphan) believes he’s just the artist Freed is looking for, and during the movie’s running time employs every trick at his disposal to get to “Moondog.” When a demo cut by Johnny and played by Alan on his radio show becomes a smash, the search for “Johnny Melody” intensifies; with the help of Johnny’s girl Julie (Sandy Stewart), Freed and Melody are brought together and Johnny’s future career in the music business is solidified. (Well, for a while I’m guessing. Until he winds up having to play one of those “garden parties” that Rick Nelson memorably bitched about in song.)
The Sprocket Vault, the new distribution arm of Kit Parker Films which I previously mentioned in a November blog post. (The Johnny DVD is an Amazon exclusive.) It’s a nice little nostalgic wallow back to those halcyon days when, as the press release for the DVD states, “Rock & Roll changed 1950s America at 45 revolutions per minute.” It’s not great art by any stretch of the imagination: the acting is amateurish, the scripting merely standard, and the cost of the entire production was likely generated from the change for a five-dollar bill. Still, it’s impossible to dislike the movie, and there’s enough novelty in the finished product to appeal to diehard rock ‘n roll fans and classic movie buffs (there’s an overlap on the Venn diagram, natch).
Chuck not only performs some classic tunes (Memphis, Tennessee and Little Queenie—plus Johnny B. Goode is played over the opening credits) but he displays some impressive thespic chops despite his amateur status. Berry plays Alan’s “sidekick,” unusual for the time in that in most movies from that era Chuck would likely be assigned the role of the janitor (played by William Fawcett in this one). (Chuck comes off a lot better than Freed, who’s stiff as a board, and Jimmy Clanton, who’s white bread bland. The individuals on the DVD’s commentary track jokingly suggest that Berry is the movie’s Hoagy Carmichael, which cracked me up.) This was Chuck’s third time appearing with the man to whom he credited for his career (despite their later squabbles); Berry can also be seen in Rock Rock Rock! (1956) and Mister Rock and Roll (1957). Berry and Clanton are pretty much the only performers required to do any acting in Go, Johnny, Go!—the other acts do whatever musical numbers they’ve been assigned, and then quickly exit stage left.
|Chuck, Alan, and Company jam on Little Queenie. (Spoiler warning: Freed is faking the drum-playing.)|
(It’s a shame that we couldn’t have performances of Valens’ Donna or La Bamba—or in Cochran’s case, Summertime Blues or C’mon Everybody—but at the time movies like Go, Johnny, Go! were released the songs in those films were intended to promote current singles…and not classic ones. Sucks for posterity, unfortunately.) Jackie Wilson—“Mr. Excitement” himself—is one of the movie’s highlights, with an energetic version of You’d Better Know It (Jackie’s moves were later “liberated” by James Brown, I noticed), and The Flamingos (in a far cry from their better known doo-wop ballads like I Only Have Eyes For You) demonstrate some bodacious Nicholas Brothers-like dance executions while performing the rousing Jump Children. The Cadillacs (“They often call me Speedo…”) also contribute to the fun with the Coasters-like Jay Walker and Please Mr. Johnson; rounding out the musical acts are Harvey Fuqua (formerly of The Moonglows) and Jo Ann Campbell.
|Jo Ann Campbell channels her inner Brenda Lee for Mama, Can I Go Out (written by Bo Diddley!). Jo Ann's biggest pop success was I'm the Girl From Wolverton Mountain, an "answer song" to Claude King's 1962 country-pop smash.|
(The title of the film might have inspired Clanton’s Top Ten single Go Jimmy Go, released later that year.) Jimmy would appear in one more film, Teenage Millionaire (1961) …and though I probably shouldn’t say this since I haven’t seen Millionaire, it’s a good thing Jimmy kept his day job. (If given the opportunity, I’d watch Millionaire; with a cast consisting of Rocky Graziano, Zasu Pitts, and Maurice Gosfield—and musical numbers from Jackie Wilson, Chubby Checker, and Dion—it would be worth a flutter.) The romance between Clanton and Stewart will produce a lot of wristwatch-glancing…but fortunately, there’s always a musical number waiting in the wings to break that monotony.
Early Landres efforts like Square Dance Jubilee (1949) and Hollywood Varieties (1950) have been made available on a series of VCI “Showtime USA” releases…and on some of those same discs, film historians Richard M. Roberts, Randy Skretvedt, and Brent Walker provided audio commentary. Well, they’ve got the band back together: RMR, Randy, and Brent are also on the commentary track of Go, Johnny, Go! and are the primary reason why you should be putting this disc in your Amazon shopping cart right now. (Full disclosure: Rich graciously arranged for the Johnny screener, and both Randy and Brent are Facebook chums.)
|Play it again! (And again! And again!)|
Smileage Guaranteed, Skretvedt’s latest book is a revised “ultimate” edition of his previous Laurel & Hardy: The Magic Behind the Movies, and Walker is the author of the indispensable Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory—all three men provide fascinating tidbits of trivia on both the performers and the production history of Go, Johnny, Go! This might only be amusing to a character actor devotee like myself—but when an uncredited Dick Elliott turns up as the man impatiently waiting for Clanton to finish a call in a telephone booth, Brent points out that Elliott played “Mike Clancy” in several Bowery Boys films (Walker is the co-author of a favorite movie reference book of mine, The Films of the Bowery Boys). (Richard sings out: “It’s the Mayor of Mayberry!”) There are any number of familiar character faces in this feature film guaranteed to delight classic movie fans including Milton Frome, Frank Wilcox, Martha Wentworth, Phil Arnold, and Joe Flynn (uncredited as the guy who gives Clanton his walking papers at his usher job).
(Milton Frome’s character in the film, a choir director who kicks Johnny out because Mr. Melody is caught singing an up-tempo member, represents the “tsk-tsk” contingent…until he gets rock ‘n roll religion at the end.) Grab a copy of this DVD and enjoy a perfectly preserved time capsule of performances from some of the best artists rock ‘n roll had to offer.