Movie Madness And/Or Mania: Go, Johnny, Go! (1959)

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Welcome back, constant readers! Never fear, there are still Imaginary Summer Autumnal Book Club and Whitman series reviews to come this month, and I am catching up on comments, Name That Book requests and e-mails! Watch this space!

But just in time for Halloween I can at least give you an unintentionally ghoulish rock and roll teenpic for your consideration.

Alan Freed was the older, cooler DJ and early rock promoter, a counterpoint to Dick Clark’s squeaky-clean 1950s image that he presented in his 1959 book of advice for teens.

Both Freed and Clark hosted music and dance shows on WABC and DJed on ABC radio, but Freed invented the Rock and Roll Movie, appearing in five low-budget, black and white movies shot over a period of a few days with minimal plot and as many performances as they could cram into 80 minutes or less.

Freed played himself in these movies, and his persona is that of a cool older brother (or hip younger uncle), bringing his touring stars to town to play a local show (or a school dance) and help teenagers prove to disapproving parents that rock music isn’t all bad.

And it isn’t even necessarily all rock- these movies feature a dizzying mix of musical genres, from white teen-idol pop, rhythm and blues, rockabilly, country and western, gospel, jazz, mambo, and big band artists.

The best-known artists featured in these films included Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, LaVern Baker, Jackie Wilson, and Bill Haley and the Comets; however (with the exception of Little Richard) these acts rarely sang their best known songs!

Also notable are the frequency of appearances by Berry, The Flamingos and the Moonglows in these movies: acts that all had hits with songwriting credits by (and royalty payments to) Freed.

Go, Johnny, Go! Is the last of Freed’s five movies, and is mainly remembered as the sole film appearance of Richie Valens. It was released just months before Freed was fired from New York’s WABC amidst government investigation into the practice of Payola in the music industry (in which DJs were paid with cash, gifts and songwriting credits in exchange for airplay); Freed was an unfriendly congressional witness, which would render him unemployable. He would die from complications due to alcoholism in 1965, aged 43.

Go, Johnny, Go! basically follows the formula its predecessors… but under the hood there is a lot going on with this one!

First of all, it has Chuck Berry in his only major acting role. Here he plays a character named Chuck Berry, who performs songs associated with Chuck Berry, but who in this alternate reality is also a struggling songwriter and leg man for Alan Freed.

As the film opens, Freed and Berry hang out in the wings of a theater, where teen idol Johnny Melody performs for screaming girls, concluding his set by tossing his bow tie to one lucky fan. Berry comments that everything turned out all right for Johnny after all.

While that comment hangs in the air, pregnant with meaning, The Flamingos perform a wild song and dance routine with splits that would make James Brown green with envy.

During the intermission, Freed recounts the story of Johnny’s rise to fame and fortune in an extensive flashback for Berry’s benenfit… which is kind of weird because Berry is present for most of the events depicted.

Orphaned Johnny (Jimmy Clanton, an up-and-comer from New Orleans) successfully auditions for a community choir, but after the director dismisses them for the afternoon, the berobed teens have rocking jam session on the organ. When the choir director unexpectedly returns, he dismisses rock music as a fad, and fires Johnny, because he is an orphan and therefore doesn’t have any parents to complain to.

Johnny goes to his day job as an usher at New York’s Paramount theater, where Alan Freed is hosting one of his big rock and roll shows, introducing the smooth stylings of Harvey Fuqua (billed here as “Harvey”).

Fuqua was soloing from his group, The Moonglows, who (like the Flamingos) had hit songs that paid royalties to Freed as a credited songwriter. Fuqua was also married to Gwen Gordy, a songwriter and record label owner; Fuqua, Gordy (and her brother) were just months away from having their first hit record on a little label out of Detroit called Motown.

Harvey is followed by Rockabilly chick Jo Ann Campbell, and Johnny gets fired for rockin’ when he should be usherin’

Johnny sticks around long enough to hear Freed’s announcement that he’s looking for the new Eddie Cochran, upon whom he shall bestow the title of “Johnny Melody” and a recording contract. To drive home the weight of this honor, the actual Eddie Cochran performs.

Outside the theater, Johnny runs into Julie (Sandie Stewart, who would have a lengthy career as a jazz singer and in commercial jingles), who he knows from the orphanage. She reports that she has been adopted by a nice family. Johnny corners Freed, who tells him that the Johnny Melody contest is a stunt cooked up by his publicist and tells him to stay in school.

Back at Freed’s office, he finds Berry and said publicist buried under piles of mail from aspiring Johnny and Jenny Melodies… including a letter from Julie, who is next shown in a studio, recording “Playmate” with a band-for-hire. Johnny turns up, having somehow raised the money to also cut a demo, and Julie joins in on the chorus without any rehearsals or anything.

Afterwards, they return to Julie’s nice adopted parents apartment to watch Chuck Berry perform “Memphis, Tennessee” on Alan Freed’s TV show. Johnny somehow has a trumpet with him now, and he accompanies Julie as she plays the piano.

In a departure from the formula, Julie’s parents really are nice, and trust their daughter implicitly, even to entertain a gentleman caller in their absence. In fact, they even offer to take the kids out to a club to hear some of that Rock and Roll music they’re so crazy about!

At the Krazy Koffee Kup, parents and teens both appreciatively bob their heads along to The Cadillacs (performing a song about pedestrian safety) (!!!) and Jackie Wilson. Freed is in the crowd, too, but Julie and Johnny fail to catch up with him when Berry shows up and insists he rush back to the office- someone has sent in a demo record that really has that new sound they’re looking for!

Freed plays the demo for an appreciative crowd on his late-night radio show and vows to play it every 15 minutes until Johnny calls in and identifies himself.

Finally, some late-breaking plot conflict, when Julie tells Johnny that she saw a bejeweled heart-and-music note shaped pin in a store window, and Johnny becomes determined to get it for her for Christmas!

Julie finally hears Freed playing Johnny’s demo and his plea for the mystery artist to call in. She rushes first to the radio station to find that he has left for the night, and then to an all-night jam session, where she finds Freed backing up Berry on the drums.

Internet sources have identified the piano player in this scene as Dave Brubeck (!!!) but I have not been able to verify it. It’s a white dude with a sidewall haircut and horn-rimmed glasses, and I guess it would make more sense for it to be Brubeck than Kissinger????

During a break in the all-night jamming, Berry literally points at his latest discovery and we finally get to the run on-run off appearance of Richie Valens, looking impossibly young (and nothing at all like Lou Diamond Phillips),  singing “Ooh, My Head” while the other characters talk through his performance and Freed gets up and leaves (!!!)

To be fair, he has run off because Julie thinks she knows where to find Johnny, and they arrive just as he’s throwing a brick through the window of a Madison Avenue jewelry store. As the alarm sounds, Freed tells the teens to run away, as he puts on an elaborate drunk act for the arriving cops, who arrest him. Johnny is concerned about the fate of his benefactor, but Julie is like “He’s Alan-freaking-Freed, he’d talk his way out of this even if was really drunk.”

Back in the present day, Johnny takes to the stage at the Loew’s State Theater, while Freed, Berry and Julie (flashing an engagement ring) look on from the wings… and the community choir director watches from the cheap seats!

Odds and Ends:

As noted on the poster, Richie Valens was very much the late great by the time the movie was released, having been killed in the plane crash four months earlier…

…which leads to the anachronism in the Valens biopic La Bamba (1987), as he (Phillips) is shown performing with Eddie Cochran (Brian Setzer) and Jackie Wilson (Howard Huntsberry) in support of this film.

Is this movie cursed? In addition to the untimely deaths of Freed and Valens, Cochran would die the year after this film’s release in car accident while on tour in England; Wilson would collapse on stage during a 1975 performance at a Dick Clark review; he’d remain in a coma for nine years before dying at 49.

When the film was released in Italy, it was recut and scenes were added with Italian pop star Adriano Celentano, who is known to U.S. audiences mainly for his novelty song “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” which the internet rediscovers every few years (Go ahead and click, you know you want it stuck in your head for the rest of the week).

Of interest mainly to me: Barbara Woodell, the actress who plays Julie’s nice rock and roll-tolerating mom was the first Mrs. Oscar Levant.

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7 Responses to Movie Madness And/Or Mania: Go, Johnny, Go! (1959)

  1. Moonn says:

    The guitar Ritchie Valens was miming with was Eddie Cochran’s! We just gonna party some more…

    • Moonn says:

      Forgot to mention, it’s wild how Ritchie absolutely did not look like his singing and speaking voice, or his voice didn’t sound like him. This is spooky:

      • mondomolly says:

        Wow, I didn’t notice that about the guitar, make sense since this thing was filmed on a budget of about $2 😄

        And totally agree on Ritchie not looking like his singing voice- a comment on the link video points out that he sounds like he’s about 30. Ugh, for what could have been!

  2. Sheesh says:

    THIS is the Pri+a lot of letters video you want.

    (My fave comment: “I think that’s his girlfriend.” “I think they’re all his girlfriend.”)

    Alan Freed adjacent: watch American Hot Wax for maybe the one and only time that Jay Leno and Fran Drescher are on the screen together and you actually don’t want to punch either of them.

  3. Funbud says:

    Well, somebody HAD to marry Oscar Levant

  4. mondomolly says:

    😄The marriage to Wooddell was a short one- in his biography she left him after he bought her a fur coat on credit and then tried to pay the bill by offering to compose Bergdorf-Goodman a concerto.

    ARE YOU GLAD YOU ASKED???? 😄

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