Released by: Sprocket Vault
Released on: 2016
Director: Paul Landres
Cast: Alan Freed, Chuck Berry, Ritchie Valens, Jimmy Clanton, Jackie Wilson, Eddie Cochran
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Chuck Berry passed away yesterday at the age of ninety, a damn fine run by anyone's stanards. He leaves behind an absolutely massive legacy, part of which includes his appearance in this 1959 feature directed by Paul Landres. Essentially a seventy-four minute hodge-podge of footage documenting the birth of rock 'n roll, the movie starts out with Berry's Johnny Be Goode playing over the opening credits.
From there, we head into Manhattan to the Loew's State Theatre right on Broadway where 'Alan Freed & Big Beat Show' are appearing live on stage! Inside, a rising star named Johnny Melody (Jimmy Clanton) sings 'It Takes A Long, Long Time' while the ladies in the audience talk about marrying him! Off stage, Chuck Berry and Alan Freed talk about the scene - it looks like this kid is gonna make it! Jimmy splits so he can go put on a clean shirt, and The Flamingos takes the stage to perform 'Jump Children' - this footage is pretty great as their bass player is surprisingly spastic, these guys have a lot of great energy, kick ass dance moves (watch that one cat do the splits like eight times in a row!) and they're just a lot of fun.
Back in the office, Alan makes some phone calls while Chuck tinkles away on the piano. Alan talks to Johnny about the business side of things, with Chuck chiming in on the importance of only writing songs for himself these days. He doesn't want to write songs for squares anymore! Johnny's due back on stage again, and we're treated to a rendition of the song that made him famous - 'Angel Face' - while Alan, at Chuck's insistence, tells his pal how he discovered this kid. See, Johnny grew up as a choir both "with chips on both shoulders." From here we flashback and see him singing, doing a solo for his church group accompanied only by an organ. Eventually though, Johnny gets a little bit of rock n roll fever and things pick up as the organ player leaves and the kids take over, snapping their fingers as he croons away - when the organ player finds this, well, he's gonna send Johnny straight back to the orphanage he came from! But Johnny, he's not going back. No way.
Meanwhile, at the Paramount, Alan Freed is presenting a special Christmas cavalcade of stars! Here Harvey Fuqua (of The Moonglows) shows up and dances about as he sings 'Don't Be Afraid Of Love.' After that, Jo Ann Campbell does 'Mama (Can I Go Out Tonight),' - Johnny was working as an usher that night in the theater but once he gets caught dancing along by his supervisor, he's told that this is his last gig, he's fired! But at least the guy lets him take in the rest of the show before kicking him out. Freed takes the stage again and tells the crowd he's looking for a new youngster to take on the mantle of Johnny Melody and how he'll bring this new upstart to the top of the charts! This piques our hero's interest but first? Eddie Cochran and his crazy guitar show up and play 'Teenage Heaven.' After the show Johnny hits it off with gal, Julie Arnold (Sandy Stewart), but before he can take her out, he's got to talk to Alan Freed about becoming Johnny Melody! Freed tells him this was nothing but a publicity stunt and that he should go back and finish high school. Johnny's heartbroken but he's clearly found his one true calling - he's gonna make it as a rock n roller, no matter what it takes!
As Johnny's tale plays out, we're treated to plenty more classics - Sandy Stewart doing the ridiculously awesome 'Playmates' as well as 'Heavenly Father,' Clanton performing 'My Love Is Strong,' 'Once Again,' 'Don't You Know' and 'Ship On A Stormy Sea,' Chuck Berry duckwalking like a champ to 'Memphis Tennessee' and 'Little Queenie,[ The Cadillacs doing [Jay Walker[ (complete with a sketch wherein the cops shake down our titular petty criminal) and 'Please, Mr. Johnson', Jackie Wilson blasting through 'You Better Know It' and Ritchie Valens cranking through 'Ooh! My Head.' Of course, none of this is really done live, it's all lip-synched, but it doesn't really matter, it's still a lot of fun to see.
Also released as Johnny Melody, The Swinging Story and The Swinging Story of Johnny Melody, this isn't a particularly deep film nor is the story at all surprising, but Clanton is a likeable enough guy and fun to watch here. Maybe not too surprisingly, it's the scenes with Alan Freed and Chuck Berry just sort of hanging out that are more interesting. These are clearly scripted but there's a charming sort of stilted appeal, particularly to Berry's 'acting,' that is endearing in a weird sort of way. The whole thing was made fast and cheap, shot in five days for Hal Roach Productions, but it's a pretty great time capsule of an important era and an opportunity to see a lot of rock n roll royalty doing their thing in front of the camera.
Go, Johnny Go! arrives on DVD in a beautiful 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that is virtually pristine. This might have been shot fullframe but the compositions look good here, there aren't any heads being chopped off or anything like that. Contrast looks nice, detail is just fine for a standard definition presentation and there's really almost no print damage here at all.
The English language Dolby Digital Mono sound mix, the only one available on the disc, sounds just fine. It's clean, clear and properly balanced. While the limitations of the original recordings are occasionally obvious, you can't fault this for sounding how it's supposed to sound. No problems here. There are no alternate language options or subtitles provided.
Extras on the disc start off with a commentary track from Richard M. Roberts, Randy Skretvedt and Brent Walker. This track is basically a history lesson in the early days of rock n roll and in this particularly movie's part in mainstreaming it. They talk about Berry's place in the movie, how he looks out of place at the piano where he's clearly faking it and surprisingly not smoking a cigarette. They also talk about how black R&B records started catching on with 'the kids' in the early fifties, leading to the birth or rock n roll and the rise of artists like Elvis and plenty others. Lots of interesting stories here about early rock n roll shows and some of the chaos that ensued out of those spectacles, lots of talk about popular records of the day and their importance in the birth of the movement,
Additionally the disc includes an original theatrical trailer for the film, menus and chapter selection.
The Final Word:
Go, Johnny Go! isn't deep but it is pretty fun. Of course, the music is more likely to be the reason you'll want to seek this out than the story, and the acting is nothing to write home about, but the movie has plenty of quirky charm. The Sprocket Vault DVD looks and sounds just fine and contains an interesting commentary as its main supplement. R.I.P., Chuck!