The rock ‘n’ roll era started in the ’50s and has spawned all sorts of offshoots of “rock” in the seven decades of music since, including hard rock and metal. But how long was it into the rock ‘n’ roll era before the first rock ‘n’ roll movie came along? Well, that depends on how you define a rock ‘n’ roll movie.
Did the First Rock ‘n’ Roll Film Coincide With the Birth of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Era?
Many will credit Blackboard Jungle as the first rock ‘n’ roll film, especially given that the song “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and the Comets appeared under the opening credits of the March 1955 film. That song in particular is often credited by many historians as the start of the rock ‘n’ roll era by many, based off the success it achieved in bringing the new style of music called rock ‘n’ roll to the forefront.
But the song almost never became a smash hit at all. The track was initially issued in May 1954 as the b-side to “Thirteen Women (and Only One Man in Town).” It failed to make the Cashbox music charts at the time, and was considered a bit of a flop. But the song’s usage in Blackboard Jungle is what eventually catapulted the interest in the song.
In “Rock Around the Clock: The Record That Started the Rock Revolution,” author Jim Dawson notes that film star Glenn Ford turned to his son Peter’s record collection for musical inspiration, trying to pick out a song that represented the vibe of music the youth of 1955 were experiencing as this new style of music was taking off.
Once the film debuted, the use of “Rock Around the Clock” signified for many the first time they’d heard this new style of music represented in a major motion picture, which in turn led to the boost in interest.
But some will argue that Blackboard Jungle is not a rock ‘n’ roll film despite its usage of the rock era defining track at the beginning of the film. This would be because it was more of a dramatic feature, starring Glenn Ford as Richard Dadier, the new teacher at a rough inner-city high school with kids from diverse ethnic backgrounds. The teachers in the film struggled to keep order against a growing sentiment of anti-social behavior displayed by the students that include such future acting superstars as Sidney Poitier and Vic Morrow. And while rock music may have opened the film and been a perfect compliment to the sense of unrest in the movie, the film itself didn’t really factor in rock music per se into the plotline.
If Blackboard Jungle Isn’t the First Rock Movie, What Is?
It would be a little over a year-and-a-half from Blackboard Jungle before Hollywood truly started tapping into the rock craze, but when they did it happened quickly. In the month of December 1956, a trio of films graced the big screen, each with rock music related elements factoring into the plot and even some of the day’s new superstars appearing the movies.
The first was The Girl Can’t Help It, also known as Do-Re-Mi, starring well established actors Jayne Mansfield, Tom Ewell and Edmond O’Bryan. The film was more of a musical comedy with Mansfield starring as the girlfriend of a mob boss who has written a song while in prison and feels she could be the perfect singer to make it a success. Turning her career over to an agent, she’s then introduced into the music industry. But the journey into the industry features several personal complications along the way.
The film itself had Little Richard singing the title song, and features a wealth of modern day musicians such as Nino Tempo, Eddie Fontaine, Julie London, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, Eddie Cochrane, Ray Anthony Orchestra, Fats Domino and the Platters. It was shot in Technicolor, bringing more vibrancy to the audience and can be viewed as the first rock ‘n’ roll film if you discount Blackboard Jungle.
As stated, this was the first of a few new rock ‘n’ roll films all arriving around the same time. Rock! Rock! Rock!, a musical drama, arrived on Dec. 7, 1956, a week after The Girl Can’t Help It. It centered on a teen girl’s (Tuesday Weld) quest to get enough money together to buy a strapless gown for the prom. The film featured notable rock DJ Alan Freed, while showcasing Chuck Berry, The Flamingos, The Moonglows, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers and more stars of the day. And singing star Connie Francis provided the vocals for Tuesday Weld when her character sang onscreen.
The trio of rock films in December 1956 was rounded out with Don’t Knock the Rock, which was released on Dec. 14, 1956. In this film, Alan Freed once again starred as a disc jockey attempting to prove to the parents of the town that rock ‘n’ roll music was harmless and wouldn’t turn their kids into juvenile delinquents. Bill Haley and the Comets were joined in the film by other recording stars such as Little Richard, Dave Appell and The Applejacks and The Treniers.
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So depending on how you define a rock ‘n’ roll film, the first of rock movie was either Blackboard Jungle or Girl Can’t Help It, with several others following close behind.
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