A Brief History of Rock 'n' Roll Films from 1956 to 1959

Written by Cameron K
  • font size decrease font size increase font size
  • Print
  • Email

In the mid-fifties television had a profound effect on the fortunes of Hollywood and at the same time, rock’n’roll was still in the province of radio and live performances.

Good-looking young musicians were extremely photogenic and the moguls of Hollywood saw a window of opportunity and began to make movies aimed at the younger audience. Not quite sure what to do the plots of these early Rock’n’roll films were almost always paper-thin and the cast built around a package of stars.

Juvenile delinquency had attracted some box office success with The Wild One (1953) and Rebel Without A Cause (1955) but it was only when Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ was played over the credits of Blackboard Jungle (1955) another teen drama did the full force of Rock’n’roll hit the screen. Blackboard Jungle was for many teenagers around the world their first real experience of the new and wild style of music. Despite the promising start, the early rock movies were inept by comparison to Blackboard Jungle and now ironically form a showcase of contemporary music.

rebel without a cause james dean 1

In 1956, Rock, Rock Rock !  (1956) saw the introduction of Chuck Berry to the silver screen as well as many other artists including; Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, La Verne Baker, Connie Francis, The Moonglows, and The Flamingos. The storyline was simple and featured Alan Freed (The King of Rock’n’roll) as the parental friend of the all-American teenager. A role, he reprised twice over in Rock around the Clock (1956) and Don’t Knock the Rock (1956). The former was directed by Fred F. Sears and produced by Sam ‘King of the B Movies’ Katzman who later went on to produce several Elvis Presley movies in the 60s. It was a bio-flick of sorts that dramatically recreated the fictional origins of the musical genre. The plot was incidental to the music but wherever the film was shown riots broke out in theatres and couples publically danced in isle and others fought. Bill Haley and the Comets headlined the movie with Alan Freed playing himself. Cameos from The Platters and Freddie Bell and the Bellboys were included among others and the movie became a major box office success.

Don't Knock the Rock (1956) immediately followed and was also directed by Sears and produced by Katzman. The plot revolved around Alan Dale (himself a very good singer) playing a rock’n’roller who discovers the authorities in his hometown have banned his kind of music. With the help of disc jockey, Alan Freed and Bill Haley and His Comets, the kids set out to prove that the music is not as bad an influence as the disapproving adults think. Cameos from Little Richard, The Treniers, Dave Appell, and the Applejacks gave a strong Rock’n’roll presentation but the film was not as commercially successful as its predecessor.

dont knock the rock 1

The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) starred Jayne Mansfield, Tom Ewell, and Edmond O’Bryan, three consummate actors, and was written and directed by Frank ‘Tish Tash’ Tashlin. This was a more serious effort that satirised the Rock’n’roll business. Many believe this was a landmark film and consider it to be the first real Rock’n’ roll musical which established the genre as the main feature as opposed to simple exploitation. It was shot in Technicolor and Bobby Troop wrote the original score, with Little Richard singing the title song. The film features a wide array of artists including Nino Tempo, Eddie Fontaine, Julie London, Gene Vincent, and the Blue Caps, Eddie Cochrane, Ray Anthony Orchestra, Fats Domino, and the Platters being the more notable. The girl can’t help it became a box office success.

Jamboree!  (or Disc Jockey Jamboree in the UK) (1957) was directed by Roy Lockwood and could be argued to represent the first presentation of music videos. The plot surrounds a boy-girl duo that becomes overnight sensations but runs into problems when their managers try to turn them into solo acts. Against this backdrop are cameo appearances from some of the biggest names of rock 'n' roll lip-syncing to their own recordings. These include Frankie Avalon Jimmy Bowen; Fats Domino, Charlie Gracie Buddy Knox, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Slim Whitman. Dick Clark also as part of the plot introduces a number of disc jockey's from across the world; Jack Jackson (ATV) and Chris Payne (BBC); Werner Goetze (Bayerische RundFunk); and Chris Howland (West Deutche RundFunk). The idea was to reinforce in the American audiences the commercial international appeal for Rock’n’ roll.

jambore fats domino jerry lee lewis 1

In the movie 1957 Mr Rock ‘n’ Roll, Alan Freed sets out again to prove that rock and roll doesn't cause juvenile delinquency. Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, The Moonglows, Lavern Baker, Teddy Randazzo, Clyde McPhatter, and Brook Benton are on hand to help. Elvis Presley’s screen debut was as an actor in Love me tender (1956). He sang the title tune over the credits but otherwise, the singing was restricted to being ‘in character.’

In his second movie Loving you (1957), Elvis played Deke Rivers, a truck driver with a penchant for singing and raw animal magnetism. The story of his rise to fame is partly autobiographical and arguably shows Elvis in his most natural on screen. Lizabeth Scott, James Gleason, and Wendell Corey give solid support and Presley performed seven songs, among them, Got a lot o’ livin to do, Party Doll, and Teddy Bear.

It took until his third movie Jailhouse Rock (1957), to allow the singer to do what he did well on screen and in doing so broadened his commercial appeal. High School Confidential (1958) was directed by Jack Arnold and starred Mamie Van Doren, Russ Tamblyn, Jan Sterling, John Drew Barrymore, and Jackie Coogan. The film also featured a cameo with Jerry Lee Lewis singing the title tune. Go Johnny Go (1958) was another film featuring Alan Freeman and a pack of rockers including Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson, Ritchie Valens, The Cadillacs, The Flamingos, and Eddie Cochrane. By this time, certainly in North America, it was generally thought within the industry that Rock’n’roll had played itself out.

elvis jailhouse rock 1

Meantime in the UK, the smaller film industry was mirroring Hollywood with lightweight plots to feature popular UK rock’n’rollers. Tommy Steele appeared in The Tommy Steele Story (aka Rock around the world) in 1957. A biopic featured 14 popular songs many by Tommy Steele but also others including Nancy Whisky and the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group. Unlike American Television in the UK, there were programs to appeal to young audiences which featured prominently the new music. American Bandstand was ostensibly a program about dancing that would eventually include popular vocalists but in the UK the Six-Five Special (BBC) and later Oh Boy (ATV) thrived on Rcck’n’Roll. In the same year it was launched on television there was a highly successful film of the Six-Five Special (1957) which featured Petula Clark as an actress and singer. The plot revolved around a cast preparing for the program and featured 16 well-known UK performers including Jim Dale, Lonnie Donegan, John Barry Seven, Lord Rockingham’s Eleven, the King Brothers, and Don Lang.

In the 1958 low-budget film, Expresso Bongo Cliff Richard had his acting debut. The plot follows the rise and fall of a young star (Cliff Richard) caught in the hands of a Svengali. Cliff Richard appears with the Drifters (aka The Shadows). Cliff Richards’ next movie was Serious Charge (1959), and dealt with juvenile delinquency in England. Both gritty and harsh for the time the film dealt with serious issues including child molestation. Cliff Richard sang versions of "Living Doll," "Mad," and "No Turning Back" and there were plenty of dance and jive scenes as part of the story. UK rock’n’roll films of this period were more in keeping with the British movement of the ‘angry young men’ which prevailed in theatre and literature.

Used with Kind Permission and Thanks


Read 3807 times Last modified on Tuesday, 13 July 2021 18:59
Rate this item
(4 votes)
Cameron K

Cameron K

About Us

ZANI was conceived in late 2008 and the fan base gradually grew by word of mouth. Key contributors came from those of the music, film and fashion industry and the voice of ZANI grew louder. So, when in 2013 investor, contributor and fan of ZANI Alan McGee* offered his support to help restyle and relaunch the site it was inevitable that traffic would increase dramatically and continues to grow. *Alan McGee co-founder of Creation Records and new label 359 Music..


What We Do

ZANI is an independent online magazine for readers interested in contemporary culture, covering Music, Film & TV, Sport, Art amongst other cultural topics. Relevant to modern times ZANI is a dynamic website and a flagship for creative movement and thinking wherever our readers live in the world.