Something weird is happening in Middle America: You can see it in Conrad Birdie’s revelation in the courthouse park, howling a hymn to the American Virtue (“Sincere! All-American Sincere!”) before a stiffly assertive obelisk bollocked by screaming stone eagles. It’s in the red stacked fez rising from beneath a conference table where Janet Leigh has apparently seduced whole tiny busloads of shriners. What is it that’s made the pillars of our society go all phallic and set Ann-Margret off on a voyage of self-discovery beneath a lumpy sweater? Rock and roll, of course (or a Broadway approximation thereof, in this case) and its emergence is the subject of this Walter Reade series.
Bye Bye Birdie (1963) is certainly the slickest of the films available for preview, but at least its parts are reasonably rude. Any hope that rock would monkey-gland the low-rent Hollywood grinders who rushed to exploit it crashes hard on the barren ground of, say, Twist Around the Clock (1961), which may have been made in less time than it takes to watch. Its premise: Rock and roll is dead, but the Twist is Now—and Forever! Since the Twist, as you may know, is a rock and roll dance, saying it’s going to take the place of r’n’r makes as much sense as claiming toenails will replace feet.
But who goes to these things for sense? There are also songs (the twist is great, it’s performed in most major continental states, also Waikiki), performers (Chubby Checker, yes, and Dion, but mostly CLAY COLE), performance (all shot from the same four dead camera angles). And twisting, lots of twisting. As this mass of vanished youth corkscrews down into a very dark place, you have to wonder why anyone would pull them back. It’s great that studios are taking an interest in their archives, but would anyone number this among the Top 100(0) films most in need of preservation? In comparison, almost anything looks good and It’s Trad, Dad! (1962) looks better. Two years before A Hard Day’s Night, Dick Lester made a mini-marvel of invention in the face of tight constraints with a hit-and-run energy well matched to the music (despite the fact that most of the music here is Dixieland jazz). Plus, on his own initiative, he flew to the States to add such rockers as Del Shannon, Gene Vincent—and Chubby Checker, redeemed!