The concept of the rock and roll movie is something we really haven’t seen in Hollywood for a number of years. However, in the middle of the twentieth century you couldn’t throw a rock without hitting one of these movies. From The Girl Can’t Help It, to Blue Hawaii and even Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, the genre fluidly evolved over the decades, painting a clear picture of culture at the time. This week, I wanted to take a look at one of the earliest examples of these films. Here’s everything you need to know about Go Johnny Go!.
Go Johnny Go! follows Johnny (singer Jimmy Clayton) a young orphan struggling to make it as a singer. When DJ and music legend Alan Freed announces he’s looking for a new talent –to be called ‘Johnny Melody’– Johnny decides that he’s going to be a star. Sandy Stewart co-stars in the movie which features appearances by rock and roll legends Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran, Ritchie Valens, Jackie Wilson and The Famingos. Paul Landres directs Go Johnny Go! from a screenplay by Gary Alexander.
Ultimately, Go Johnny Go! holds its highest cultural value as a time capsule of this very specific era in the music industry. The characters, the acting, and the script are largely paper thin. There’s just enough content to string the movie together between music numbers. In fact, Go Johnny Go! shouldn’t even be called a narrative film. In reality, it’s a concert film, marketed squarely to teenagers in order to capitalize on the growing presence of rock and roll in the United States.
Luckily, Go Johnny Go! does provide some of the only surviving footage of a number of legendary singers of the era who left us tragically early. Probably the biggest example is the appearance of Ritchie Valens. The 17 year old singer was killed along with Buddy Holly and JP “The Big Bopper” Richardson when their plane crashed in February of that year. Meanwhile, singer Eddie Cochran was killed the next year in a car crash while touring the United Kingdom. Both men were only teenagers, but were well on the way to crafting legendary musical careers for themselves. It’s a shame we didn’t get to see where they were going.
At the same time though, the movie comes historically as things were begining to change in rock and roll. Just a year before this movie was released, Elvis Presley was drafted into the army. It was also the same year news broke that Jerry Lee Lewis married his thirteen year old first cousin (once removed), largely ending his career. By the end of 1959, Chuck Berry would be arrested and later serve jail time for taking an underaged girl (whom he was reportedly in a relationship with) over state lines.
As these legends were struggling, record companies white-washed the face of rock and roll, conforming the genre to fit in with the cultural ideas of the 1950s. The figures that took over were younger, and played to the more innocent and conservative ideals of the era. Men like Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell rose to prominence during this time.
Jimmy Clanton’s star began to rise in 1958 as part of this taming of rock and roll. Truthfully, as Go Johnny Go! gets going, Clanton’s casting doesn’t gel with the tone the movie is trying to set, particularly in the first act. The narrative builds Johnny as a “bad boy”. This begins early as he’s kicked out of a church choir rehearsal for singing what is supposed to be a rock and roll song. The moment is one which doesn’t play well, especially through a contemporary perspective. Any supposed rebellion in the moment, and for that matter, any in Clanton as the film’s star, is completely entwined with 1950s conservatism. Just imagine a movie trying to craft Pat Boone as a rebel…it would have a similar feel.
At the same time, the film (like so many others of the era) crafts an interesting female lead in Julie (Sandy Stewart) who unfortunately isn’t able to rise above the fluff the script gives her. The character feels similar to Peggy (Judy Tyler) in Jailhouse Rock. Julie is smart, she’s quick and we see her recording a demo of her own; however, the narrative quickly shoves that aside to build up Johnny’s story. Ultimately, Julie as a character is under-utilized and pigeonholed as a “supportive girlfriend”; however, there’s something in Stewart’s performance and screen persona which makes one wonder if “Go Julie Go” would have been a more interesting movie.
A quick look over Stewart’s career shows her breaking out as a pre-teen and working in and around music and television through the very early 1960s with names like Perry Como, Merv Griffin and Ernie Kovacs. A profile “The Comeback of Sandy Stewart” in the July 31, 1994 issue of the New York Times, paints a strong picture of Stewart as a performer, and one of a generation of women forced to step back from promising careers to raise a family. While Stewart declares in the article that she has “no regrets”, the piece quotes her children saying they “couldn’t have let (her) do that if it were happening today”.
All in all, in the more than sixty years to pass since it’s release, Go Johnny Go! is less a movie and more a very specific snapshot of a very particular era in United States culture. The film is a fascinating and important watch, particularly for fans of early rock and roll– just don’t pay close attention to the acting or the script.
Go Johnny Go! is available to stream on YouTube.