Monday, January 29, 2007

It's Rad, Dad!


Today Turner Classic Movies screened nothing but old rock and twist movies from the late '50s and early '60s. You know the fare - "films" like Bop Girl Goes Calypso (the film that caused Buddy Bradley a run-in with his collector nemesis in Peter Bagge's comic Hate), Rock around the Clock, Don't Knock the Rock and their inevitable (and cleverly named) twist versions Twist Around the Clock and Don't Knock the Twist. I use the term "film" advisedly because these were really nothing more than just excuses to sandwich musical performances of the top acts of the day around the loosest of narratives, usually the old Andy Hardy ploy of "Let's Put On A Show!" to save someone or something. But then I saw Richard Lester's little 1962 gem, It's Trad, Dad!, which was released here in the US as Ring-a-Ding Rhythm.

Oh sure, it's got the same flimsily formulaic "plot" as all the other pop music movies, this one the story of a small British "Town Which Shall Remain Nameless," whose mayor just wants a quiet cup of coffee and thus outlaws music in public places like the teen coffeehouse hangout where the kids are not listening to raucous rock but trad/Dixieland jazz!; whereupon a boy and a girl (15-year-old singer Helen Shapiro and clean-cut crooner Craig Douglas) concoct a plot to circumvent Town Council opposition by getting a big-name DJ to put on a benefit jazz show in the main square of The Town Which Shall Remain Nameless and save the day for lovers of that wild banjo and cornet Devil Music. But what makes this movie so cool is Richard Lester's style and direction. On the strength of It's Trad, Dad! it's easy to see why The Beatles selected him to direct them in their big screen debut, A Hard Day's Night (1964). In fact, the Beatles liked Lester so much they had him back to direct them in Help! (1965) as well. (Beatles fans should also note that the female star of It's Trad, Dad!, the deep-voiced Helen Shapiro, would later headline The Fab Four's first big tour, during which Lennon and McCartney wrote "Misery" for her. Similarly, male lead Craig Douglas - the British Pat Boone who hit No. 1 on the Brit charts in 1959 with his cover of Sam Cooke's "Only Sixteen" - topped the bill on The Beatles' first major stage show, though the emergence of their brand of rock & roll would ultimately curtail his career.)

Lester's comic sense is on full display here, as he peppers the proceedings (music act after music act, including the very odd-looking Del Shannon who sweats more than Richard Nixon during a televised debate and looks like he should be a sideshow freak character in some Lynch or Fellini film) with all kinds of imaginatively framed visuals and cleverly executed slapstick humor - not at all surprising given the American director's extensive experience working with English comedians like Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan. But what really stands out is the artistry of Lester's cinematography. He knew how to capture musicians on film better than anyone else working at that time. This was not the routine - a close-up on the singer's face, a medium shot, a crowd reaction shot - a la some cheesy Dick Clark TV production. No, Lester used unusual camera angles, stylishly lit silhouettes, split screens, slow-mo, fast-cutting and any and every trick in the book to make the obvious (yet another musical performer performing) seem interesting and engaging (with the lone exception of Del Shannon, whose eerie looks and disturbing presence were beyond tweaking). Mad, not Trad, skills indeed.

Lots of Yanks turn up in It's Trad, Dad!, many no doubt enjoying second careers across the pond (Chubby Checker, Soloman Burke, and Gary "U.S." Bonds - the latter exhibiting a strange stage presence, tentatively attempting the twist as if he's afraid he'll crease his lovely suit). Gene Vincent and the Blue caps play the rockin' ditty "Spaceship To Mars" in one scene, which is enough to recommend this movie to most people - though Gene strangely just leans on the mic and doesn't move an inch (was this after his car accident?). But my favorite scene was the one in which I got to see The Temperance Seven - those ever-cool purveyors of '20s jazz and major-influence forerunners of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band - perform two songs, including the wonderful "Everybody Loves My Baby." My friend Tom Lehr turned me on to these guys back in college and I've been thankful ever since. Fronted by the deadpan crooner Paul MacDowell, the Temps actually had a British No. 1 hit in 1961 with "You're Driving Me Crazy." (For a good sampling of the Temps - as well as the Bonzos and others of their ilk - check out the compilation CD, By Jingo It's British Rubbish!).

If it comes on again, tape this movie. A title like It's Trad, Dad! may not sound like it, but it really is rad, dad, even despite all the Dixieland jazz. The Beatles certainly thought so.

Related Links:
Great TCM Review (Jeff Stafford)


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gene Vincent's car accident was in 1960, so this would be post-crash. Are you gonna hook me up with a copy of TRAD, dad?

11:20 PM  

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