Sunday, December 31, 2006

Serendipitous Cinema

For most people I know, watching a movie is a self-contained act. They see it, it ends, and they’re done. Next!

It’s very difficult for me to get any kind conversation going with our friends about what made a movie work or didn’t work. Socrates maintained that an unexamined life isn’t worth living. My corollary is that an unexamined movie wasn’t worth watching; and no matter how bad, any movie can be worth watching.

I thought about this as I watched “It’s Trad Dad” on TCM this weekend. I was the only one in the room who enjoyed the film, and my enjoyment didn’t stop when the movie ended. The 1962 teen movie follows the formula of the day. Town bans teen music, teens put on TV special to show the music is good. Just enough of a plot to string together musical performances by different recording artists.

An amiable piece of fluff, but it gave me greater understanding of the world of music and cinema. This was Richard Lester’s first feature film, and on the strength of its imaginative camerawork, cheeky tone and convention twisting, it won him the job of directing the Beatles’ first two films. From “It’s Trad Dad” would spring a visual vocabulary of hipness that would not only help define the Beatles, but would later be copied by the Monkees, and continue to show up in countless music videos through the current day.

The British film mixed traditional Dixieland jazz with pop. Apparently both were hot with UK teens in the early ’60s. Del Shannon sang a song (NOT “Runaway”), and I got to see a rare performance by the Paris Sisters (for the full lineup, follow the link above to the entry) And Aker Bilk was a featured artist. I was only familiar with his “Stranger on the Shore.” The jazz he and his combo laid down was a far cry from that syrupy hit, and gave me new respect for this underrated artist.

The leads were Craig Douglas and Helen Shapiro. Doing a little research after the movie, I discovered Shapiro was big in the UK, and had the distinction of being the least-successful one-hit-wonder this side of the Atlantic. Her song “Walking Back to Happiness” entered Billboard’s top 100 chart at #100 and never went any higher.

I also was impressed by a performance by the Temperance Seven, a band specializing in 1920’s style white jazz. Their sound reminded me of “Winchester Cathedral” a hit for the New Vaudeville Band four years later. The goofy shenanigans and visual puns they pulled off during their numbers reminded me of the Goon Show. Great stuff, and in my post-film research I discovered they even shared an album with Bonzo Dog Band, who grew out of the same trad jazz movement.

So this one film gave me an insight into the evolution of rock and roll cinema, helped me learn a little more about British pop, let me sketch in some background on a couple of one-hit-wonders and provided an entertaining 87 minutes of viewing.

I despair for my uncurious friends. They miss so much when they just watch a movie.

- Ralph

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