Go, Johnny, Go! (DVD Review)23 Jan, 2017 By: Mike Clark
Available via Sprocketvault.com
Stars Jimmy Clanton, Alan Freed, Chuck Berry, Sandy Stewart.
Of all the rock revue pics made in the 1950s, Go, Johnny, Go! definitely carries the most star-crossed aura, considering the tragic fates that awaited so many members of its cast — a couple of them eerily soon after this quickie’s production. When, in my city, Johnny finally got a surprising downtown theatrical first-run booking about a week before my 12th birthday, its co-feature was Ed Wood’s notorious Plan 9 From Outer Space, a booking fully in keeping with what would turn out to be this Alan Freed baby’s snake-bitten history. Fortunately, the voiceover commentary on this surprisingly pristine DVD looker is funny enough to make what’s billed as a “Sprocketvault” release (it’s part of the Kit Parker family) something of a rollicking affair.
Johnny was the final Freed movie (a body of work if there ever was one) because when it opened in early summer of 1959, the father of rock-‘n’-roll was just about to see at least his national career go down in flames due to the Payola scandals and the Freed IRS woes it spawned. Greased palms aside, the famed DJ/promoter actually handled the fallout with a fair amount of honor, and there are those who’ll tell you he died for a lot of sins that were shared with others who didn’t pay his price. The movie’s slender plot is in keeping with what you’d expect from an AF vehicle or any other movie with a reputed five-day shooting schedule: Freed is looking for an aspiring teen singing idol he can mold into a prefab rocker named “Johnny Melody” — which will apparently be the moniker even if whatever kid gets chosen ends up sounding like Michael V. Gazzo or some New York Giants’ lineman in the studio.
As it turns out, he eventually ends up with Jimmy Clanton’s “Johnny” character, who has been bounced from the orphanage for singing some extremely lukewarm rock-and-roll in choir practice. The real-life Clanton had scored his one major hit (a huge-ie) with summer-of-’58’s “Just a Dream” for predominantly R&B-ish Ace Records, though he was mostly known for a haircut that swooped up high in front before dipping into a kind of modified bowl look just in back. (A little deeper on the bowl action, and his head had might have ended up being a place where a cat would enjoy resting.) Counting the aborted orphanage number, I think Clanton manages to sing about four different songs by the time we get to the 15-minute mark of a 75-minute movie, which isn’t too promising.
Fortunately, a lot of real rockers show up here — though, again, not without an element of sadness and certainly against a minimum of creative staging. Jackie Wilson (represented by major hit You Better Know It), would much later end up collapsing after the oldies show and spend all or many of his remaining days in a coma; Eddie Cochran, making his final of three screen appearances, would die in a taxi mishap a year later; and Chuck Berry (doing the much covered “Memphis” and “Little Queenie” here) would before too long be in the slammer on a largely trumped-up morals charge. But it’s even worse. Piecing together the film’s brief production chronology, it looks as if Ritchie Valens, who shows up very late in the story for his only big screen gig, may have perished as soon as two weeks later after shooting in the Iowa plane crash that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Even the Hal Roach studio, where Johnny was shot, was making its swan song.
Beyond these inarguable curiosities or better, we have the standard storyline wishful thinking in which Caucasian adults who include parents quite long in the tooth) rejoice to black acts like the Cadillacs and the Flamingos — in, of course, nightspots that apparently only cater to whites. Or to put it another way, dig that crazy Cadillacs comic relief, mom, just before you take off to eat sandwiches with the bread crusts removed at your bridge club. And for the obligatory romantic dimension, we get a Clanton squeeze and former orphanage pal played by Sandy Stewart, who a few years later in real life scored a few sales with my favorite version of “My Coloring Book,” which Kitty Kallen (single) and Barbra Streisand (album cut) also recorded creditably at the time. Stewart’s character wants a rock career herself, which must be why the movie mystifyingly has her performing a re-do of Kay Kyser’s Playmates, a major 1940 pop hit that inspired an eponymously titled B (or maybe shaky “A”) at RKO in its day. And here you thought Paul Anka personified the ethos of 1959.
The commentary by Richard M. Roberts, Randy Skretvedt and Brent Walker is an ideal mix of deep buff-dom (backgrounders on the many familiar faces in the supporting cast) plus savvy knowledge of payola; the way bad professional representation ripped off musical performers; people who took songwriting credit for tunes they didn’t compose; Hal Roach Jr.’s money problems; and the likelihood that Freed or someone imposed the Chuck Berry duck walk on the conclusion of Chuck’s “Memphis” performance because, otherwise, such a wistful tune wasn’t the stuff of jive-y footwork. The three amusingly seem to agree that Berry has the “Hoagy Carmichael” part here — hanging around Freed’s office and imparting the wisdom (with a heavier load of screen dialogue than expected) that this Johnny kid really has what it takes.
Surprisingly, the print is immaculate after a close call that initially found the original negative missing with no real backup until what turned out to be sparkling materials were discovered in an ill-marked film can. As a result and even on a big screen, this DVD looks better than some Blu-rays I’ve seen. This is a big help, given the threadbare production values; the person in charge of the original production in 1959 couldn’t even spell “Johnny B. Goode” correctly in the end credits, though I’m guessing that even Plan 9, in its day, got the “9” right).