Thursday, March 27, 2014

Jóvenes y Rebeldes (Producciones Sotomayor, 1961)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night Charles and I watched a truly odd movie Jóvenes y Rebeldes (“Youth and Rebels”), the third of the films I’d ordered from the Video Beat Web site and quite a bit different from the other two. First, it was a 1962 Mexican production (at least that’s the date Video Beat gives; says 1961) and, though Bill Haley and the Comets are in it, they only do two songs and the rest of the movie is in Spanish — and the Video Beat release (obviously from an amateur VHS tape from a Mexican commercial station, since there was a logo in the upper right-hand corner throughout the movie — a clapboard design with the word “Pélicula” — and noticeable stutters where the commercials had been edited out) is not subtitled, though the plot wasn’t difficult to follow and Charles was able to help me out, mainly by explaining the jokes. Second, the film really isn’t a rock ’n’ roll musical the way Haley’s U.S. film appearances had been; we get a few Spanish-language songs but only one of them is original (ostensibly sung by the film’s heroine, Lorena Velásquez, though the voice is different enough from her speaking voice my guess would be she had a double). It’s actually a vehicle for a Jerry Lewis-style Mexican comedian named Adalberto Martínez (gee, with a first name like that he could open a taco shop in San Diego!) who, like Cantinflas, billed himself with both his character name, “Resortes,” and his own. In the opening scene, “Resortes” and two J.D. friends are driving in a quite nice convertible when they attempt to run a nice young man and woman off the road — the two cars are both relatively new, fancy and quite similar-looking, a difference from American J.D. movies in which the J.D.’s usually drove either piece-of-shit clunkers or hot rods and seemed to be picking on their victims as much out of class envy as anything else — and the other driver crashes and the three J.D.’s flee. Later they stick up a candy store, and the police finally catch “Resortes” holed up in a room, arrest him and — to the strains of a jarringly bouncy and upbeat stock music cue quite different from the dire stuff we’ve been hearing earlier — take him to prison. Then the opening credits come up.

When the film resumes, Resortes has finished his three-year sentence and been released, and it becomes clear he’s going to be torn between returning to criminal life and going straight. Helping him take the latter course is a coffee-shop owner (back when a “coffee shop” meant a cheap restaurant and not what’s now known as a coffeehouse), Don Celso (Francisco Reguiera, who played the title role in the unfinished Orson Welles film of Don Quixote), who like the coffee-shop owner in the 1940’s PRC J.D. movie I Accuse My Parents seems to combine the morals of Gandhi and the psychological perceptions of Freud. Don Celso warns Resortes against a group of young people sitting at a table trying to pass themselves off as “students” but who are really there to shake him down in a protection racket straight out of a 1930’s Warners film. One of the “students,” Betty (Lorena Velásquez), really is a student at the Universidad Autonomo in Mexico City, and she latches on to Resortes intending to study him for a student project. She even gets him into the university, only when it turns out he never got past the third grade he’s bounced down to an elementary school classroom, where in a routine that would probably have been pretty funny if I knew Spanish instead of having Charles explain it to me, he gets the names and numbers of the continents garbled. This surprisingly long (90 minutes) film lurches to a close when the two guys who were in the gang with Resortes in the opening sequence before he went to prison meet up with him at the coffee shop and blackmail him into helping with what he thinks is going to be a burglary at the home of Betty’s parents (Carlos Riquelme and Emma Arvizu) but what is really going to be a kidnapping. At the end, Resortes’ friends from the coffee shop rescue Betty from the older thugs, including the rather seedy-looking mastermind of the outfit, and he and Betty have a bittersweet parting in which, contrary to movie expectations, she’s willing to have a serious relationship but he rejects her and does a tearful Third Man-esque walkout from her life.

Given the auspices under which we obtained our copy, Charles and I had both expected this to be a Mexican version of a 1950’s rock ’n’ roll musical, with lots of acts performing Rock en Español before it was called that, but all we got in the way of songs were two performances by Bill Haley and His Comets, ostensibly playing at a dance Betty and her student buddies were putting on at the UNAM campus; one original, in which Lorena Velásquez or her voice double does a surprisingly twitchy scat-vocal anticipating Yoko Ono, Lena Lovich and Kate Pierson (of the B-52’s); and engaging Spanish-language covers of “Sing, Sing, Sing” (of all songs!) and “Fever” (with a drum-and-bass backing indicating the performer learned it from Peggy Lee’s version rather than the Little Willie John original — not that that’s necessarily a bad thing; unlike most of the white artists who covered Black songs in the 1950’s, Peggy Lee was genuinely creative and put her own “spin” on the songs instead of just cranking out pale imitations). Indeed, in the “genre” section of the page on Jóvenes y Rebeldes the film is listed as “Comedy | Crime | Drama” but not as a musical. One of the remarkable things about Jóvenes y Rebeldes is that it’s photographed quite creatively; instead of the dull grey tones the cheap U.S. studios like American International were bringing to stories like this, cinematographer Raul Martínez Solares shoots most of this as full-dress noir, creating an atmospheric chiaroscuro visual “look” that makes up for a lot of the lameness of the script by José María Fernández and Afredo, Varela, Jr. and the slovenly direction by Julián Soler. As for the Bill Haley songs, he does “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and “See You Later, Alligator,” both mimed to records made well before the film was shot — “Shake, Rattle and Roll” in 1960 (and actually a better version than the one he did in 1955, I thought; it’s slower, funkier and restores at least one of the original lyrics — “I can look at you, see you ain’t no child no more” — Haley had bowdlerized in his original — and since his ace sax man Rudy Pompilli had left the band by then, the instrumentation sounds more like later rock than it did on Haley’s record) and “See You Later, Alligator” from 1955 (probably the same track as the Decca release, since Pompilli is audible on it even though no sax player is seen on screen), and aside from being the only parts of the film in English, the Haley tracks are fascinating and energetic.

The Video Beat followed up the movie with about a half-hour’s worth of clips from Haley’s concert performances in the mid-1950’s, including one in Germany that ended in a riot (which may have been provoked by the German police’s attempt to keep anybody from dancing in the aisles — this was only about a decade after the Nazis fell and a lot of the German cops look like extras playing Nazis in a World War II movie), and though one of the songs — “Birth of the Boogie,” which itself makes clear that Haley’s music wasn’t as much of a departure from the swing popular in the late 1930’s and 1940’s than it’s usually portrayed as in the history books — is dubbed in from one of Haley’s recordings, most of the tracks have live sound shot at the same time as the visuals. There was one clip from one of the Columbia rock movies Haley filmed in the mid-1950’s which showed him pretty much out of it — obviously the practice of miming to one of his recordings bored him — but the live videos that were shot with synch sound, as Charles pointed out, gave the impression of how much energy Haley had “live” and what a thrill it must have been to be there. (Haley died in 1981 at age 55, living long enough to make it back to the stage on the oldies circuit but not long enough for a real comeback.) The “official” history of rock ’n’ roll basically portrays Haley as the John the Baptist of white rock, heralding the coming of Elvis, but these clips show he was a dynamite performer in his own right even though he was awkward, overweight and not much of a mover on stage. They also show that rock instrumentation was hardly as fixed in those early days as it would become later; Haley’s band includes a pedal steel guitar (a country rather than a rock instrument), an accordion and an upright bass, whose player wrestles it as much as he plays it — though by the end of the 1950’s the louder, smaller bass guitar had replaced it as the standard rock bass instrument, many rockabilly bands did spectacular things with the bull fiddle, and some of them are shown here. Haley’s bass player wrestles his instrument, twirls it around on its spike like a giant top, pulls it to the ground and rides it like a horse, keeping up the bass line all the while. The videos also give us some good looks at Rudy Pompilli, Haley’s tenor sax player, who may have had as much to do with the band’s popularity as Haley himself; he may have been the first white sax player to “honk” and he certainly had all the moves of the Black honkers down — and as can be seen by comparing the bonus footage to the Haley songs in Jóvenes y Rebeldes, made after he left, he definitely added quite a lot to the excitement level of Haley’s act. Though Haley certainly owed much of his career to the pioneering Black R&B artists (one of his two biggest hits was his cover of Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” and on the clips he’s shown doing another Turner song, “Corrine, Corrina,” obviously hoping lightning would strike twice), his country influences and dual musical identity (in the early 1950’s he had two bands, the Saddlemen who played country and the Comets who played rock — but they were the same people) helped set the tone for the first decade of white rock.