Although the American swing, jazz, big band, and country musicians of the twenties, thirties and forties starred or performed in comedic, suspense and dramatic films with musical plot lines set in nightclubs and radio stations — it was the year 1955 that set the stage: 1955 is the year that birthed rock ’n’ roll films. The origins of those reels of musical celluloid trace back to Blackboard Jungle — the first film to feature rock ’n’ roll on the soundtrack, and the first film to make the correlation of juvenile delinquency as a byproduct of rock music.
The song featured in Blackboard Jungle, “Rock Around the Clock,” by Bill Haley and the Comets, holds the distinction as the first “rock song” featured in a Hollywood movie. When the song rose to #1 on the charts, it also became the inspiration for the first film to be scripted around a rock song: 1956s Rock Around the Clock; its success, in turn, spawned a quickly assembled sequel in Don’t Knock the Rock, released that same year.
Another influential film was James Dean’s second of his three films: Rebel Without a Cause. Released the same year as Blackboard Jungle, the film served as the blueprint for numerous rock ’n’ roll-based flicks throughout the years. In fact, it’s alleged Elvis Presley was in consideration for the Dean role; it was to serve as Elvis’s big-screen debut. Elvis, the “King of Rock ’n’ Roll”: the first musician to successfully combine county music and the blues of the American Southeast into a new form of music: Rock ’n’ Roll.
Elvis Presley’s first starring role in 1956’s Love Me Tender borrowed the marketing scheme of Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock: use the artist as the “star” and utilize their hit song as the title of a movie. And with that, any rock band with a hit song found themselves appearing in, or having films crafted around their group and songs. Just ask the members of Herman’s Hermits, the Dave Clark Five, Cliff Richard and the Shadows, and, of course, the Beatles.
However, the crafting of films around successful musicians — or creating dancing-and-swimming sing-a-long musicals starring Fred Astaire or Esther Williams — wasn’t born in 1955. The first musician on “sound” film was Al Jolson, who starred in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, the first feature-length, nationally distributed motion picture with talking sequences, music and sound effects. Movie goers could see and hear Al Jolson perform “Toot, Toot, Tootsie (Goo’ Bye),” “Blue Skies,” and “My Mammy.”
Country-western star Cindy Walker carved a prolific career not only in music, but in film as well. Cindy Walker holds the distinction of charting Top Ten hits in every decade — from the forties through the eighties. Cindy sold her first song, “Lone Star Trail,” to Bing Crosby in 1940, which lead to her own record deal with Decca Records. She soon found her songs recorded not only by Bing Crosby, but by Van Morrison, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, Kenny Rogers, and Elvis Presley. Her best known song, “You Don’t Know Me,” charted three times: first in 1956 for Eddie Arnold; in 1962 for Ray Charles, and again in 1981 for Mickey Gilley. Cindy’s music continues to exist into the 21st century, with the song’s most recent appearance in the Jodie Foster radio-set film, The Brave One.
As result of her writing 39 songs for producer Bob Willis’s western movies of the early-forties, Cindy transitioned into an acting career with the western musicals Ride Tenderfoot, Ride and Frontier Vengeance in 1940, 1942’s Bearcat Mountain Girl, and 1944’s Ti-Yi-Yippe-Aye, then made her final appearance in 1953’s Oil Town, U.S.A. Even one of the bands starring with Cindy in Oil Town, U.S.A, country-western legends Sons of the Pioneers, carved out a film career of their own — long before Billy Haley arrived in 1955 — beginning with 1935’s Slightly Static, up through 1951’s Fighting Coast Guard.
Another film that utilized chart-topping musicians and music as a plot device — long prior to the rock-movie craze initiated with Rock Around the Clock — was the 1943 comedy Reveille with Beverly. The film provides an early peek into the screen career of Frank Sinatra — before his rising to the Hollywood A-List with his star-making turn in 1953’s From Here to Eternity, which served as his acting debut.
In speaking of Frank Sinatra: Billy Haley and Elvis Presley would not have made the transition to film, and Elvis would not have had an acting career, if not for Mr. Sinatra blazing the trail. Mr. Sinatra first appeared on the silver screen as a member of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra/Band in 1941’s Las Vegas Nights and 1942’s Ship Ahoy. After earning his first screen credit as a solo artist with a music performance in Reveille with Beverly, he moved onto his now classic roles in From Here to Eternity, Von Ryan’s Express, and Ocean’s Eleven.
An interesting point on Reveille with Beverly: the setting inside a radio station also served as the plotline utilized in numerous, early rock ’n’ roll films. The film stars noted dancer and singer Ann Miller (the Madonna/Britney Spears of the day) as disc jockey “Beverly Ross,” who cons her way into a gig at a military radio station charged with entertaining the troops. While there, she organizes a big band/swing show with performances by some of radio’s biggest stars of the day: Frank Sinatra, Freddy Slack and his Orchestra, Duke Ellington, the Mills Brothers, and Count Basie.
America’s fascination with the radio not only provided Hollywood with a plot device for films; the “voices” of the radio also transitioned to the silver screen. Prior to the radio careers of disc jockey Alan Freed in the fifties, Wolfman Jack (The Midnight Hour) and Casey Kasem (The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant) in the sixties, and Rick Dees (The Gladiator) in the seventies transitioning from behind the microphone to the front of the camera, Hollywood made an actor out of legendary Los Angeles radio personality Fred Crane.
Best known for his cameo appearance as one of Scarlett O’Hara’s beaus in the 1939 classic Gone with the Wind, it is Fred Crane’s voice that opens the film with the line: “What do we care if we were expelled from college, Scarlett? The war is going to start any day now.”
Crane began his radio broadcasting career as the staff announcer for Jack Benny’s radio program on the NBC Radio Network. In 1946, Crane began his prolific radio career in Southern California on 1330 AM KFAC Classical Radio. He remained with the station, placing frequently in the Top Five for drive-time ratings, until the station’s demise in 1988. During his 40-plus years on KFAC, he segued into a television acting career with the series Hawaiian Eye, The Lawman, Lost in Space, 77 Sunset Strip, Surfside 6, The Twilight Zone, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and was a regular on General Hospital in the seventies. His film roles include 1949’s The Gay Amigo, and a co-starring role as the henchman “Duke” in the theatrical version of the hit TV Western, The Cisco Kid.
As with the films of the fifties, the musically-plotted films dating to the thirties and forties served as showcases for the current music stars of the day. These progenitors to the rock ’n’ roll films of the fifties also padded their short running times with concert clips and/or on-screen performances, due to the film’s lack of a real script or plot.
Film was the perfect medium; a marketing tool in a world not yet exposed to today’s multi-channel universe of cable television and Internet-based marketing. Television was not a necessity of the masses; it was a luxury not afforded to every household in America. The same goes for the attendance of music concerts. The most cost-effective and affordable entertainment to the masses was the local movie house or drive-in theater (and that portable radio perched on the top of your grandmother’s refrigerator or that transistor radio in your pocket); both served as the only way many Americans could see their favorite music stars of the radio perform — in person.
There’s a LOT of radio station-based films and this list of recent B&S About Movies reviews only scratches the surface.
Bad Channels (1992)
A Cry for Help (1975)
Dark Signal (2016)
Dead Air (1994)
Dead Air (2009)
Don’t Answer the Phone (1980)
Incident at Channel Q (1986)
Karn Evil 9 (202?)
The Lords of Salem (2013)
A Matter of Degrees (1990)
Mayor of the Sunset Strip (2003)
Midnight FM (2010)
The Night Caller (1998)
Night Owl (1993)
Night Rhythms (1992)
Open House (1987)
Outside Ozona (1998)
Play Misty for Me (1971)
Power 98 (1996)
Radioland Murders (1994)
Radio Silence (2012)
Radio Silence (2019)
Redneck Miller (1976)
The Red Right Hand (2001)
Shattered Illusions (1998)
Straight Talk (1992)
Times Square (1980)
(Young Hot ‘n Nasty) Teenage Cruisers (1977)
Zoo Radio (1990)
If I had all the time in the world, I’d write up more detailed essays on more of the films from the industry that I love. So, here are a few quick ones.
Dog Day Afternoon goes rock. Only this time, instead of a bank, it’s a radio station as three aspiring alt-metal heads (Brandon Fraser, Steve Buscemi and Adam Sandler) launch a desperate attempt to have their music aired on Los Angeles’ KPPX “Rebel Radio.” Michael McKean of the rock ‘n’ roll flicks This is Spinal Tap and Light Of Day is the station program director, Joe Mantegna (U.S TV’s Criminal Minds) is (excellent as) radio personality “Ian the Shark,” and Judd Nelson is the record executive. MTV’s Kurt Loder, Motorhead’s Lemmy, and Howard Stern’s Stuttering John Melendez (Stuttering John, the band, placed a song in the film) appear in cameos. White Zombie and The Galactic Cowboys (as the Sons of Thunder) perform; Anthrax and Primus appear on the soundtrack. Director Michael Lehmann returned with the radio station rom-com, The Truth About Cats and Dogs.
* Many thanks to Gregg Harrington over at the Neon Maniacs podcast for coming to the rescue and reviewing this awesome, grungy slice of ’90s nostalgia for B&S, as we just didn’t have time to give it a full review proper.
This Canadian grunge-drama follows a disc jockey who serves as the background for multiple storylines. Lloyd is a disc jockey for an alternative station that’s in love with a bartender at a local punk club, who’s involved with a liquor store clerk. The rest of the Gen X slackers: a rollerblading criminal with a wealthy friend who cares for the homeless, and a shrink with an uncooperative patient.
The Four Corners of Nowhere (1995)
In A Matter of Degrees, shenanigans at the campus radio station served as the backdrop for a group of misguided college students in Providence, Rhode Island. In Singles, the grunge rock scene of Seattle served as the backdrop. In The Four Corners of Nowhere the romantic comedy takes place in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as a college radio disc jockey uses the lives and relationships of his local coffee shop friends as fodder for his radio program. It’s the usual collection of aspiring musicians, law students and artists searching for the meaning of live.
On the Air Live with Captain Midnight (1979)
This less effective ode to radio piracy-by-van (so it also qualifies as a “vansploitation” flick; see Van Nuys Blvd.) appeared on The USA Network’s weekend Night Flight programming block in the early ‘80s. It stars Tracy Sebastian, aka Trey Loren, as the titled pirate who drives his pirate operation up and down Van Nuys Blvd., much to the chagrin of an F.C.C agent portrayed by John Ireland (Incubus). Jim Ladd of L.A.’s KMET radio also co-stars. One of Tracy’s earliest roles was in his parents’ ‘Gator Bait and he starred in Rocktober Blood.
Pump Up the Volume (1990)
A high school loaner, nicely played by Christian Slater (True Romance), leads a double life as “Hard Harry,” a sarcastic pirate disc jockey bunkered in his parent’s basement. He soon invites the wrath of the school’s administration as he begins to question the school’s operating methods. Those parents: they just don’t understand. He spins “Titanium Expose” by Sonic Youth and the Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation,” along with Soundgarden, Peter Murphy, and Henry Rollins fronting the Bad Brains on “Kick out the Jams.” It’s all from the pen of Allan Moyle, who brought you Times Square (itself partially set in a radio station jocked by Tim “Dr. Frank-N-Furter” Curry) and Empire Records.
* Be sure to visit this excellent, definitive review of Pump Up the Volume over on the film blog from The Master Cylinder, a great site that also pays homage to the books, music and television of old.
A Canadian radio romp similar to Eldorado, only with the on air banter of a pirate radio disc jockey, Rude. He’s the plot-connective between the lives of several people living in Toronto’s tough inner city: an ex-drug dealing mural artist tries to reconnect with his family after being released from prison, an aspiring boxer destroys his career by participating in the assault of a gay man, and a woman faces the outcome of an abortion.
Times Square (1980)
While Tim Curry received top-billing in the initial ad campaign he’s barely in the film, shooting all of his scenes in two days—but what a great two days of shooting. His underground DJ Johnny LaGuardia takes advantage of two misanthropic (lesbian) runaways from the opposite sides of the tracks that are championed by the cultural malcontents New York’s 42nd Street. Give it up for the Sleeze Sisters!
* Many thanks to Jennifer Upton for picking up the slack and writing a full review proper for Times Square. Be sure to visit her blog where she frequently writes about horror and sci-fi: Womanycom.
The Rest of the Best:
Alan Partridge (2013): When a media conglomerate takes over a small British radio station, a self-absorbed disc jockey (comedian Steve Coogan) becomes the reluctant hostage negotiator for the disc jockey he got fired.
Bad Channels (1992): A publicity-hungry shock jock battles an alien using the station’s signal to capture and shrink human females in this “sequel” to Full Moon’s Demonic Toys and Dollman. Actually, it ties into five Full Moon movies (I think), but who’s counting?
* Hey, wait a minute . . . my boss, Sam, reviewed this one already? Doh! There’s too many films on this site! And here’s another take courtesy of our good friend John Leavengood over at Movies, Film and Flix.
The Brave One (2007): Jodie Foster stars as a popular New York liberal radio talk jock who goes “Death Wish” over the murder of her fiancée.
Comfort and Joy (1984): Only Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth, who gave us the adored HBO favorite Gregory’s Girl, can come up with a movie about mobsters, radio stations . . . and ice cream. After a radio disc jockey’s life goes into a comedic, downward spiral after his kleptomaniac girlfriend leaves him, he becomes involved in the rivalry of two Italian families over the city of Glasgow’s ice cream market.
* Our thanks to fellow film blogger TenSecondsFromNow at Film-Authority.com for bringing up the fact that we forgot to mention this movie.
Pirate Radio (2009): A group of rogue British DJs takes on the British establishment. Also known as The Boat that Rocked, it’s based on the famed ‘60s station Radio Caroline.
Private Parts (1997): Howard Stern’s New York Times best-selling biography becomes one of the most accurate—and funny—portrayals of radio on film.
Radio Days (1987): Woody Allen’s love-letter to listening to the radio of his youth.
Talk Radio (1988): Eric Bogosian shines as the acidic Dallas DJ Barry Champlain that’s based on the tragic 1984 assassination of radio host Alan Berg.
Talk to Me (2007): Don Cheadle (of the Iron Man and Avengers franchise) portrays real life ex-con Petey Green who went on to became a top-rated Washington, D.C disc jockey.
The Upside of Anger (2005): Kevin Costner is an alcoholic ex-ballplayer and sports radio talk jock involved with his widowed neighbor and her three daughters.
There’s more music-centric film reviews to enjoy!
* Banner by R.D Francis. Clash 45-rpm sleeve courtesy of Discogs.com and text courtesy of PicFont.com.