The first appearance of rock and roll music in film seems to have been something of an afterthought. When Richard Brooks’s Blackboard Jungle was released in 1955, the producers made a last-minute decision to accompany the opening and closing credits with an obscure B-side called ‘Rock Around the Clock’ by Bill Haley and the Comets. The record had been released the previous year with little success. Although an instrumental version of the tune does appear in the middle of the film, Blackboard Jungle is barely concerned with rock or pop music at all. In one notable scene, the delinquent teenagers trash their teacher’s treasured collection of jazz records; while in another, one of the students, Gregory Miller (played by Sidney Poitier) performs a gospel song with his black class-mates. However, the inclusion of Haley’s track made it an immediate chart hit; and it also contributed to the remarkable success of the film with teenage audiences. Indeed, the use of ‘Rock Around the Clock’ seems to have encouraged dancing and even wilder behaviour in cinemas, both in the US and in the UK. When the film was shown in South London in 1956, Teddy Boys in the audience reportedly rioted and slashed the seats; and this led to similar behaviour in cinemas around the country. On both sides of the Atlantic, the film was banned in several cities on the grounds that – as the Atlanta Review Board put it – it was ‘immoral, obscene, licentious and [would] adversely affect the peace, health, morals and good order of the city.’
The first ‘pop films’ followed shortly afterwards, at least in the US. Haley and his band featured in Rock Around the Clock (1956); and this was rapidly followed by a brief Hollywood cycle of films featuring early rock-and-roll performers, including Shake, Rattle and Rock!, The Girl Can’t Help It and Rock, Rock, Rock! (1956) and Rock, Pretty Baby and Don’t Knock the Rock (1957). However, the most successful and most lasting of these films featured the emerging star Elvis Presley: following his first appearance in a supporting role in Love Me Tender (1956), Elvis starred as a musical performer in three films, Loving You and Jailhouse Rock (1957) and King Creole (1958) before he was called up for army service.
In the UK, equivalent films took a little longer to emerge. Tommy Steele appeared in his own biopic The Tommy Steele Story (directed by Gerard Bryant, 1957), although he quickly moved away from anything resembling rock-and-roll to more mainstream light entertainment. It is Cliff Richard who is most frequently seen as the British equivalent of Elvis: his first appearance was in a supporting role in a late ‘juvenile delinquent’ film called Serious Charge (1959), followed in the same year by the music industry satire Expresso Bongo. Starring roles came with The Young Ones (1961) and Summer Holiday (1962) and the less successful Wonderful Life (1964) – by which time he was in direct competition with the Beatles, whose first film A Hard Day’s Night had just appeared.
I’ll be discussing several of these films in this essay, but it’s important to start by defining my terms. The films I’ll be considering all feature already successful pop performers playing ‘themselves’ – or at least versions of themselves. There is some blurring at the edges here: in one of these films, Catch Us If You Can (1965), the Dave Clark Five play television stunt-men rather than musicians. However, I am not concerned with films in which pop or rock music is used merely as part of the soundtrack; with music documentaries; or with films in which noted pop performers appear as ‘straight’ actors playing other roles. To a greater or lesser extent, all the films I discuss are about the music (or performance or media) industry: and while the earliest tend to relate stories of a rise to stardom, the later ones are more concerned with the effects of fame.
There is a large hinterland of such films in the period I’m considering. In the UK, for example, the early 1960s saw several cheaply produced films starring less well-remembered performers such as Billy Fury (Play it Cool, 1962; I’ve Gotta Horse, 1965), Joe Brown (What a Crazy World, 1963), Freddie and the Dreamers (Every Day’s a Holiday, 1964), Gerry and the Pacemakers (Ferry Cross the Mersey, 1965), and several others. Few commentators have explored this subterranean world, perhaps for good reason. However, in this essay I’ve chosen to focus on more well-known and commercially successful examples: in addition to three Elvis films and two featuring Cliff Richard, I go on to consider the first two Beatles films, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) and Help! (1965), as well as Catch Us If You Can and a later film starring the American band the Monkees, Head (1968).
Beyond the binaries
These films span a historical period in which youth itself was somewhat of an emerging category. The term ‘teenager’ was apparently not coined until the 1940s; and the notion of ‘youth culture’ emerges, both in academic sociology and in marketing literature, at around the same time. While this was partly to do with the discovery – or at least the segmentation – of a new consumer market, it was also accompanied by a sense of teenage behaviour as a growing social problem. This latter view found its most obvious cultural expression in the ‘juvenile delinquent’ movies I’ve considered in a previous essay. Here youth are frequently represented as troubled or deviant, and in need of firm adult guidance. By contrast, the rise of youth as a distinctive market – and as a source of energy and enthusiasm – is most obviously apparent in the pop films I’ll consider here. In this respect, these pop films might be seen as a kind of counterpart to the JD movies.
According to Dick Hebdige, representations of youth tend to reflect a binary logic: either we have ‘youth as trouble’, or we have ‘youth as fun’. However, many of these films are more complex than this. They refer – directly or indirectly – to quite contradictory ideas about what young people are, or should be. While they have strong elements of ‘fun’, they also draw upon the idea that youth is in some way subversive of adult authority, even if they appear to defuse this apparent threat. Rock-and-roll (or pop music more generally) becomes a particularly ambivalent phenomenon here: while it might be associated with violence or dangerous sexuality, or with a more general sense of young people as being ‘out of control’, it is also a product of an adult-dominated entertainment industry with its own economic imperatives. In the process, the binary of ‘trouble’ and ‘fun’ can turn out to be somewhat less clear-cut.
In his broader study of the US ‘teenpics’ of the 1950s, Thomas Doherty makes a further distinction between what he (rather confusingly) calls ‘imperial’ and ‘indigenous’ representations of youth. While the former adopt an implicitly parental perspective, the latter are more directly aligned with young people themselves. The former view youth from the outside, while the latter appear to speak from within – to, and for, young people themselves. For example, a film like Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) features several noted rock-and-roll performers of the period; yet, as Doherty maintains, it is only ‘nominally’ a rock-and-roll film. It is essentially a satire of youth culture, and of the ephemeral nature of the pop music scene (and in this, it has much in common with the British film Expresso Bongo). By contrast, Doherty argues, Richard Thorpe’s Jailhouse Rock (1957) may be an unapologetic vehicle for Elvis Presley; but it treats the man and his music in a much more respectful and sympathetic way. The former is an ‘imperial’ film, which implicitly considers teenage tastes to be ‘crass and bewildering’; the latter is an ‘indigenous’ one, which accords validity to the music and those who follow it.
This is a useful distinction, although in my view these films are often more ambivalent – they are not either ‘imperial’ or ‘indigenous’, but often combine elements of both perspectives, not least in attempting to appeal both to young audiences and to adults. For example, as I’ll suggest, Jailhouse Rock represents the Elvis character less than positively, especially once he has achieved fame. Several of these films show both teenage and adult characters in sympathetic ways, and provide images of reconciliation across the generations. At the same time, they all emphasise – and in some cases, quite strongly criticise – the commercially constructed nature of ‘youth culture’.
As this implies, the pop film can be quite an ambivalent phenomenon. On one level, these films are obviously part of the marketing of popular music. They are routinely described as ‘vehicles’ for musical stars, and sometimes as ‘exploitation’ films that seek to capitalize on a star’s success. In this period, there was a sense that making movies was the logical next step in an emerging pop artist’s career. Few believed that rock-and-roll would be anything more than a short-lived fad; and in the case of artists like Steele, Presley and Richard, their managers were keen to ensure the longevity of their careers – which often meant appealing to a broader (and older) audience. Many of these films offer what purports to be a ‘back story’ (albeit sometimes in fictional form) or a ‘behind the scenes’ account of who the performers ‘really’ are, endowing them with a kind of authenticity and depth that cannot be found elsewhere. Perhaps more obviously, they also provide fans with extended opportunities to gaze admiringly at the objects of their affection on a large screen, in ways that were less immediately available through the still emerging medium of television.
Yet on another level – and to different degrees – these films are also precisely about the marketing of popular music, and of the star as a kind of commodity. They demonstrate how the music business (and the wider media business) operates. They show how the image and persona of the star is constructed and manipulated by others, whose intentions may be more or less benevolent. They show how stars struggle with the difficulties of their own fame, and how they seek to preserve the private ‘reality’ – the honesty and authenticity – behind the public image. They show how Elvis becomes ‘Elvis’, or how Cliff becomes ‘Cliff’; they show how the individual Beatles cope with – and seek to escape from – being ‘the Beatles’. As such, these films expose the processes of which they are themselves a part; and while some of them do so with a kind of innocent optimism, some maintain a cool irony, and others are much more cynical and disaffected.
A key dimension of this is the complex relationship between rock-and-roll and ‘show business’. In almost all these films, the star performers do not speak from within a fully-developed, autonomous ‘youth culture’: on the contrary, they operate in the context of more mainstream forms of family entertainment (not just music, but also television). In some instances, the star’s rise to fame is part of a ‘coming of age’ story, in which they gradually accommodate to the requirements of an adult commercial world. In others, there remains a tension between the performer’s ‘real’ personality and the constructed image that the industry (and the media) appear to require; and in the case of the later films, authenticity itself appears to be little more than an illusion. Many years before postmodernism was dreamed of, films like Catch Us If You Can and (especially) Head are highly self-reflexive, almost to the point of imploding into themselves. Pop, it seems, began to eat itself even before it had fully come to life.