(1959)2.5Bruce EderFor a sloppily made, dramatically inept, cinematically crude film, Go, Johnny Go! is also amazingly rewarding, principally as a musical and social document that ends up revealing more about its era than its makers meant or intended. It isn't a classic, by any means, but it is a worthwhile middle-weight entry in the field of jukebox movies. Director Paul Landres, who could be a low-budget auteur when he had a good script and a good cast to work with (as on The Return of Dracula), mostly had neither here, but he still managed to make something unexpectedly substantial out of what was mostly nothing. He also keeps the action moving at a brisk pace, so that even if all one cares about are the performance clips, the movie works on that level -- and compared to the first of the Alan Freed-spawned jukebox features, Rock, Rock, Rock! (made in 1956), Go, Johnny Go! is practically Hamlet.
If you look behind the ridiculous plot and pacing -- one can't tell how much time has elapsed between any of the key events depicted, and even the matching of the shots and sets within the same scenes is sometime sloppy -- you get a pretty revealing look at what was happening to rock & roll in late 1958. Star/DJ Alan Freed's career had already peaked, and when his onscreen incarnation -- played by the man himself -- tells of looking for a new talent that he'll push right to the top using the stage name "Johnny Melody," that's a reference to the kind of packaged teen-pop singers along the lines of Frankie Avalon and Fabian who were already starting to displace foundation rock & rollers like Chuck Berry from the airwaves and the charts. Freed just oozes insincerity and cynicism around every line of dialogue referring to his "discovery," and he doesn't even try to feign sincerity, anymore than he tries to look like he's playing the drums on the clip of "Little Queenie." And Berry himself -- who almost quit the picture when he found out he'd be required to deliver dialogue here as well as mime to his records -- is a startlingly cynical presence throughout the movie, playing a kind of (mostly) sanitized, Hollywood version of himself, using slang he'd never mouth and generally portraying a kind of bad Hollywood writer's vision of a black hipster. However, when he almost chokes on the praise he heaps on Jimmy Clanton's "Johnny Melody," that's the real Chuck Berry manifesting himself amid the changes that were about to bury him on the American charts, and when he talks about worrying about the present and letting the past and the future "take care of themselves," it was an eerily honest foretaste of events that had taken place just months before the shooting of the movie that were to land him in court and in jail soon after. Furthermore, when Freed asks rhetorically whether any of the great singers look like they sound, Berry can be heard to say slyly, "I do" -- a reference to the fact that when he started out, Southern promoters who hadn't seen his picture, or who had only seen very washed out photos of him, took Berry for a white man singing black music, à la Elvis Presley, a misunderstanding that ended up getting him paid in full for shows in the South that he couldn't perform because of ordinances forbidding black and white performers from working on the same stages.
One must merely ignore the central plot and the two characters played by Jimmy Clanton and Sandy Stewart, although even there you get some insights into the differences between the way that some black artists perceived and wrote rock & roll, and how white teen audiences perceived it. As Chuck Berry performs "Memphis Tennessee" on television (concluding with a fiercely sexual "duckwalk" that was astonishing for a black man to be seen doing, in a movie aimed at mainstream white audiences in 1959), a very serious song about marriage, divorce, and broken families, Clanton's and Stewart's characters are seen laughing as they watch the performance onscreen at her home. Similarly, when the Cadillacs do "Please Mr. Johnson," an admittedly funny song with even funnier choreography that touches on poverty and unemployment, Clanton, Stewart, and the actors playing her character's parents are seen laughing, as though they're watching a minstrel show. The movie encompasses such unintended sociological statements, along with the presence of a brace of familiar faces from Hollywood and Broadway, among them William Fawcett (in a very funny cameo, as a janitor who plays the clarinet), Frank Wilcox, Herb Vigran, Phil Arnold, Milton Frome, Joe Flynn, and Robert Foulk.
At the center of the film, though, is a script that's filled with thinly veiled zingers aimed at the music business, at the usual wide-eyed, bushy-tailed look at the business that these movies present (and that teenagers tended to have), and those performance clips. Despite Freed's shortcomings as a drummer mime, the Chuck Berry "Little Queenie" sequence is considered by many rock & roll aficionados to be one of the great performance clips in the history of rock cinema. The adjoining Ritchie Valens clip is also cool, if only for the two good-looking teenage girls dancing to the beat of "Oh, My Head." The performance spots by Jackie Wilson ("You Better Know It"), the Flamingos ("Jump Children"), Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows ("Don't Be Afraid to Love"), the Cadillacs ("Please Mr. Johnson" and "Jay Walker"), Jimmy Clanton ("Ship on a Stormy Sea"), and Jo-Ann Campbell (who swings her hips in a manner that manages to be both lusty and chaste to "Mama, Can I Go Out") are worth the price of admission. Only the Eddie Cochran clip is a disappointment, a cute performance of a tame song (using the same prop-guitar that Valens uses in his segment). The story, too, is played with an eerie mix of sincerity on the part of the two leads (Jimmy Clanton and Sandy Stewart) and total cynicism by everyone around them. By the time the outro comes up and the end credits roll, you're laughing, smiling, and smirking all at once, in a combined reaction that only American Hot Wax ever managed to achieve in serious cinema on this subject (and it took a lot more screen time to get there). The movie was out on videotape and laserdisc in the 1980s and is worth tracking down, though one wishes that the distributors could have delivered what they promised in the late '80s, a special edition with extra performance clips of Cochran and Valens (production stills exist and parts of the credit sequence also shows both performers in different shots from the scenes in which they appear); those never surfaced, but perhaps on a DVD edition they might.
Go, Johnny, Go! was second and last of a proposed trio of jukebox movies built around and co-produced by DJ Alan Freed. He plays himself in this rags-to-riches tale, told in flashback, of a young rock & roll singer named Johnny Melody (Jimmy Clanton), whose rise from life in an orphanage where no one wanted him to his "discovery" by Freed through an unsolicited demo recording sent to the disc jockey's office is told in 75 minutes, in a dramatic time frame that's impossible to determine. Along the way, Johnny meets a girl (Sandy Stewart) with whom he falls in love, and nearly gets himself arrested when it looks as though everything has turned against him. The plot is a threadbare reprise of the kind of juvenile delinquency-with-music stories that Elvis Presley had been doing, but it offers glimpses of several very worthwhile (and a couple of legendary) music acts of the era who were otherwise undocumented on film: Jimmy Clanton himself, who was one of the best white singers to come out of that New Orleans R&B/rock & roll sound; Sandy Stewart, who was (and is still, 40-plus years later) a serious vocal talent; Chuck Berry, in a pair of performing clips that are brilliant; Ritchie Valens, in his only film appearance, doing a hot rocking number called "Oh, My Head"; Harvey Fuqua of the Moonglows; the Cadillacs, in a pair of killer comic-relief numbers; Jo-Ann Campbell; and Jackie Wilson, showing how little Michael Jackson actually brought to performing that was new more than 20 years later. No, Go, Johnny, Go! isn't A Hard Day's Night, but it is a lot of fun to watch, and is easily the best of Freed's handful of feature films, before his downfall in the payola scandal.