Music videos are usually thought of as being a product of the 80’s. However, they have existed in one format or another pretty much since sound came to the movies. Today we’re going to look at a film which is essentially a feature-length collection of music videos…but this isn’t MTV we’re talking here. The year is 1957 and the biggest DJ in the country is Alan Freed, the man who many credit with starting the rock ‘n’ roll craze. He plays himself alongside several rock acts of the day in “Mister Rock and Roll.”
The story is ultra thin. It begins with Freed hosting a show featuring many up-and-coming music acts. After the show, he asks one of the performers, Teddy Randazzo (playing himself), if he’ll take some time to talk to a young reporter doing a story on rock ‘n’ roll. The reporter is a pretty young lady, Carole Hendricks (Lois O’Brien), on her first assignment. Not only does she get a great interview, but she ends up falling head over heels for Teddy. Little does she suspect that her publisher, Joe Prentiss (Jay Barney) intends to use the information she’s gathered to write scathing articles on Freed and the menace of rock music.
Freed, though, has his own way of fighting back. He goes on his radio show and tells about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll and how it wasn’t he who orchestrated it…it was just what the kids wanted. In this sequence we are treated to a flashback where we see how Freed hit upon the idea of playing rhythm and blues music on the air during a visit to an Ohio record store. That part of the story is somewhat factual. Oh, but I forgot to mention that he hits on this idea while at the record store with his good pal…champion boxer Rocky Graziano (playing himself). Uh…yeah, right. After telling the story of the rise of rock, Freed then encourages his young listeners to come on down to the station and donate money to the “heart fund,” which is Mr Prentiss’ favorite charity.
All throughout the film, we are treated to a slew of classic performances by rock acts, both known and unknown today. Among those featured are Lionel Hampton, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, LaVern Baker, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Brook Benton, and many more. The two most well known performers to appear are Chuck Berry and, the showstopper of the film, Little Richard with a rousing performance of “Lucille.”
The music is definitely the reason to watch this film, and was certainly the main concern of the filmmakers. There are no great cinematic aspirations on display here. This was essentially an opportunity for teenagers to lay down a few bucks at the movie theater to see some of their favorite acts, and some newcomers, on the big screen. With any luck they went right from the cinema to the nearest record store and loaded up on some 45’s. So, if you can enjoy a film purely for some great old music, this is the film for you.
On the other hand, if pesky things like story, character development, or simple acting ability are a big deal to you…well, here’s your warning. Alan Freed may have been one of the first people inducted into the Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of fame, but an actor he ain’t. He doesn’t seem comfortable in front of the camera, and who can blame him…he was a radio guy, after all. Most of his part, though, is simply introducing the many music acts. However, the most appealing member of the cast was also not an actor to begin with…boxer Rocky Graziano. Despite one painful moment where he sings (yes, sings!) with Teddy Randazzo, he brings an undeniable charm to his scenes. Graziano would actually go on to a moderately successful TV career.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of “Mister Rock and Roll” will depend on what you think of 50’s music. There were certainly films that highlighted great music acts of the time but still succeeded in the story department (“The Girl Can’t Help It,” for example)…this ain’t one of them. Some of the songs here are hits, and some are misses, but the story is a dud. Just imagine that you’re watching MTV circa 1957 and you’ll still have some fun with this one.