Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Hey, Let's Twist! (Harry Romm Productions/Paramount, 1961)

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

After the dreariness of the first rock movie Charles and I watched last night, Rock, Rock, Rock!, our second one, Hey, Let’s Twist!, was a revelation (and it helped that we were watching it in a quite good DVD transfer from The Video Beat instead of a crummy download from — at times the picture quality on Rock, Rock, Rock! was so ghostly Charles got the impression that the Moonglows and the Teenagers were racially mixed groups because the guys in the back had so much color drained from their faces that in this cheap black-and-white film, ill treated through years of abuse and generations of copying, they looked white). Not that it was any great shakes as a film, but its director, Greg Garrison, was miles ahead of the director of Rock, Rock, Rock!, Will Price, in doing creative camera angles and rapid-fire cutting. Instead of presenting the performances from one static camera shooting from one unchanging angle, as Price and most of the directors of the Freed movies did, Garrison propels us into the action and makes the music of his star attraction, Joey Dee and the Starliters, as exciting as the script by Hal Hackady (a name that seems to invite bad puns!) tells us it is. (He also fills the screen with lots of close-up of women’s butts encased in tight knit pants — obviously he didn’t want to fall into the trap of previous rock movies that had appealed mainly to girls; he wanted to give straight guys a reason to watch it as well!) Return with us to those thrilling days of 1961, when there was a new dance craze called the Twist and it had two ruling gods, a Black one named Chubby Checker and a white one named Joey Dee. Actually “The Twist,” the song, had been written by 1950’s R&B vet Hank Ballard and recorded by his group, The Midnighters, in 1960 — only, in one of the most boneheaded decisions of all time, Ballard and his record company, King, decided to put “The Twist” as the B-side of Ballard’s haunting R&B ballad “Teardrops on Your Letter.” Enter Chubby Checker and the guys at Cameo-Parkway Records, who heard a hit song buried on Ballard’s B-side and had Checker record it in virtually the same arrangement.

The result was a record whose sales soared into the stratosphere, and also attracted a white imitator named Joey Dee, who recorded something called “The Peppermint Twist” (itself largely ripped off from Ray Charles, specifically his original “What’d I Say” and his arrangement of Hank Snow’s country hit “I’m Movin’ On”) and held forth at the Peppermint Lounge in New York City, where his record label, Roulette, recorded him live … well, at least they said they did; in fact his album was studio-recorded with a lot of applause and crowd noise dubbed in later to make it sound live. (A lot of faux “live” albums were made that way in the early 1960’s.) Needless to say, both Chubby Checker and Joey Dee got movie deals out of their Twist successes (while Hank Ballard grabbed at least a bit of the revenue when King reissued his version of “The Twist” as an A-side; at one point America was so Twist-crazy that Checker’s “The Twist” was number one on the charts and Ballard’s was right behind it at number two!). Checker signed with Columbia and got put into excruciatingly exact remakes of the Alan Freed movies Rock Around the Clock and Don’t Knock the Rock — inevitably retitled Twist Around the Clock and Don’t Knock the Twist — while Dee signed with Harry Romm Productions, who commissioned a script from Hal Hackady that purported to tell the story of how Joey Dee had invented the Twist (which, as noted above, he hadn’t) but really recycled The Jazz Singer along with every 1930’s and 1940’s movie about a star who lets sudden success go to his head and abandons his true values to attract lots of money and a spoiled rich girl. In this one the Al Jolson role is split between two brothers, Enrico (Joey Dee) and Rosario (Teddy Randazzo — so last night Charles and I were unwittingly having a Teddy Randazzo film festival!) DiDonato, whose father (Dino Di Luca) has somehow been scraping $1,000 to send his two boys to college, Rosario to be a lawyer and Enrico a teacher, even though his only visible, above-board source of income is a decrepit Italian restaurant called the Neapolitan Gardens whose sole customer base is the younger DiDonatos and its hostess, Angie (Kay Armen), who’s been in unrequited love with Daddy DiDonato ever since his wife died a few years before. What Dad doesn’t realize is that it’s really costing his sons $3,000 each to go to college, and they’re making up the difference by fronting a rock band that plays Twist songs.

They come home for Christmas break and break it to Dad that they don’t want to go to college anymore; they want to quit school and play music full-time — and the shock propels Dad into a nervous breakdown that lasts for several reels. Eventually, charged with running the Neapolitan Gardens while their father is convalescing, the kids put in a bandstand, put the tables together and make it into the Peppermint Lounge nightclub — which is an instant hit with the neighborhood kids and makes The Twist the irresistible dance craze it was for real when this film was released. Of course, things can’t stay that way; Hackady has to introduce some complications, and they duly show up in the person of Sharon (Zohra Lampert in a nice bad-girl performance), a gossip columnist who arranges for the Starliters to play at the Toy Ball, her big fundraiser of the year. They’re introduced to the smart set, and Rosario — who’s been rechristened “Ricky Dee” in the publicity for the event, as Enrico has become “Joey Dee” — is immediately smitten with Sharon and the world of people like Walter Winchell, Elsa Maxwell and Ed Sullivan to whom she introduces the young, naïve brothers. Hackady seems to have been channeling the script for the 1956 film of James M. Cain’s Serenade for this character — especially the role played by Joan Fontaine (who was a Gay man in Cain’s novel), who’s described as burning through protégés in three weeks, then getting bored, dumping them and leaving them behind with a cheery unconcern about what they’re going to do with the rest of their lives. In Sharon’s entourage is a good girl, Piper (Jo Ann Campbell), who also falls for Ricky — and Joey falls in unrequited love with her — and the film’s climax is when the Peppermint Lounge forsakes its no-cover, no-minimum, no-reservations policy and drives away the kids in Sharon’s demented effort to make it a spot for the 1 percent. Instead of making more money with Sharon’s policy, the newly redecorated Peppermint Lounge bombs, and Ricky disappears after Sharon rejects his marriage proposal (but keeps the ring he was going to give her for an engagement ring — she’s that kind of woman). Meanwhile, back at the Peppermint Lounge, proximity works its magic and, with Ricky gone, Piper decides that Joey is the DiDonato brother she really loves. They reopen the lounge with its old policy, it’s a hit again, and six months later Ricky finally returns — he had (surprise!) gone back to college and got his law degree after all, deciding to let Joey be the musician in the family.

Hey, Let’s Twist! isn’t a great movie, but it’s the kind of innocent fun a rock ’n’ roll movie ought to be and it benefits from a cast of people who can actually act. Joey Dee isn’t called upon to do much more than play himself (or at least Hal Hackady’s movie-clichéd version of himself) but he does so with an easy power and authority that commands the screen, and Randazzo — who shone in Rock, Rock, Rock! simply because the rest of its cast (particularly Tuesday Weld and Fran Manfred) were so incredibly incompetent, mouthing their wretched lines like porn stars who couldn’t wait to get to the sex — seemed to have improved as an actor in the intervening four years. The actors who play Dad and Angie are also surprisingly good, managing to flesh out the clichéd bones of their characters — and Kay Armen actually gets to sing two songs, an Italian song at the beginning and a Twist number at the end, and does them quite beautifully. Jo Ann Campbell is the weak link of the cast as far as acting is concerned, but when she gets up in the final scene to belt out her Twist number, that ceases to matter; as a singer and especially as a dancer, she grips the screen. One thing I noticed while watching Hey, Let’s Twist! was how derivative many of the songs were — not only did Dee’s big hit “The Peppermint Twist” rip off Ray Charles, he also does a song called “Roly Poly” which is actually a clever rewrite of the melody of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” and another one called “Shakin’ and Twistin’” which is a blatant ripoff of Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around.” Another thing I noticed was that Joey Dee and the Starliters were actually a racially mixed band — their keyboard player and drummer were both Black, and the film doesn’t make a dramatic issue of this at all, though even in 1961, 24 years after the Benny Goodman Quartet became the first racially mixed band on film in the Warners’ musical Hollywood Hotel, it still seemed surprising to see white and Black musicians playing together on screen. Charles noted that when Dee covered the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” — he was, as far as I know, the first white person to do this song — you could hear one of his Black band members shout the famous line from the Isleys’ original, “Now wa-a-a-ait a min-ute! I feel a-a-a-a-l ri-i-i-ight!,” and all of a sudden the song seems to erupt into a new and more soulful world far removed from the Twisting pretensions of Joey Dee and all the white kids in the movie (though before she made this film, Jo Ann Campbell had covered LaVern Baker’s hit “Jim Dandy” and done surprisingly well by it — as she did by Johnny Otis’s “Willie and the Hand Jive”), a harbinger of the rest of the 1960’s in which white musicians would not only take over the Black forms of rhythm-and-blues and rock ’n’ roll but legitimately extend them into the shimmering vistas of psychedelica.