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SOUND & VISION

September 15, 1985|RICHARD CROMELIN

"ROCK AND ROLL: THE EARLY DAYS." RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video. One hour. This thorough but often dry account of rock 'n' roll's rebellious rise and subsequent decline into '60s pop is an uneven mix of the familiar and the fascinating, the sloppy and the sublime. You have David (classical music) and Ricky Nelson (rock 'n' roll) dueling with their record players in a knockout opening, but then there are clips of singers performing one song while another plays on the sound track, giving it the look of a badly dubbed movie.

Producers Patrick Montgomery and Pamela Page at least take a point of view, lamenting rock 'n' roll's temporary loss of power and rebellion, but John Heard's narration is of the academic, then-the-blues-moved-up-the-Mississippi style. Some of the performances and interviews have been aired too often to provide much enlightenment, and the trick of juxtaposing Gene Vincent himself against Steve Allen's myopic belittling of "Be Bop a Lula" was done before--and better--in the "Heroes of Rock 'n' Roll" network special.

But there are some hot performances, naturally (Bo Diddley is surprisingly strong), a rare glimpse of a young Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee in the country blues sequence, the Bill Haley riots in England, racist anti-rock crusaders, Alan Freed taking the payola fall, and fans who look just like the people who go to the Lingerie 30 years later.

In the most touching scene, the sparkling-eyed young Frankie Lymon is asked at a news conference if he has any weaknesses. "Candy," he replies with a laugh, more than a decade before he died of a heroin overdose.

And in the most amazing segment, Jerry Lee Lewis and his 13-year-old wife Myra baldly deny to an interviewer that they were just drummed out of England by the outraged press. Asked how long they've been married, Lewis responds politely, "We keep out personal questions out of this, sir." When you see the child bride, nervously nibbling at her sunglasses, you can see why the adult world was so shocked. Great balls of fire!

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