The youthsploitation pictures of the ’60s don’t get much stranger than 1962’s Ring-A-Ding Rhythm (a.k.a. It’s Trad, Dad! in the U.K.). The first feature-length film by pop-art director Richard Lester, Ring-A-Ding Rhythm was an attempt by writer-producer Milton Subotsky to capitalize on the early-’60s British mania for the raucous retro ragtime jazz sound known as “trad.” The movie is sprinkled with live performances by actual rock acts—including Gene Vincent, Chubby Checker, and Gary “U.S.” Bonds—but is held together by a perfunctory story about a couple of teenagers who try to organize a trad concert in their hometown in order to change their parents’ minds about the music. Meanwhile, Lester doodles happily in the margins, bringing in some of the post-modernism and comic surrealism that made his 1960 short The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film such a sensation (and that he’d bring to The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night a few years later).
Early on, Lester and Subotsky introduce a narrator who openly helps the heroes by teleporting them where they need to be and by firing cream pies from offscreen at the authority figures who stand in their way. And throughout, Lester squeezes in visual jokes wherever he can: a storage closet where musicians are stacked up on shelves, a sequence where waiters at a classy café race to complete a service in under 30 seconds, and so on. But what’s really kooky about Ring-A-Ding Rhythm isn’t its style or its winks at the audience. (Even the super-square American beach party movies were often playful and fourth-wall-breaking.) It’s the music. Ring-A-Ding follows the basic form of a rock ’n’ roll extravaganza, except that roughly 75 percent of the songs are by nerdy-looking Brits doing Louis Armstrong impressions. The movie is like some alternate-universe version of one of those quickie Sam Katzman productions, like Rock Around The Clock or Don’t Knock The Twist.
Subotsky’s next film, Just For Fun, was a little more in the mainstream, musically, sticking mostly with American-style pop, rock, R&B, and country. But the “name” acts are less famous this time, and though Subotsky retains the tongue-in-cheek tone of Ring-A-Ding, he and director Gordon Flemyng replace Lester’s visual gags with interminable sketches that lean on exaggerated accents and costumes. Subotsky and Flemyng do very little with Just For Fun’s plot, which has to do with some cynical politicians’ attempt to win an election by granting teenagers the right to vote and then pandering shamelessly to them by holding rock concerts. The satire is heavy-handed and completely indifferent to any real concerns that the youth of the early ’60s might have had. (If anything, Just For Fun’s point of view is that while the men who run England are terrible, their kids would be much worse.) Still, there’s something fascinating about a movie that applies such familiar style to such unfamiliar content. The Hollywood rock movies of the late ’50s and early ’60s were largely disposable, aside from the occasional glimpse of Bill Haley or Little Richard or Dion. Take away the real stars of the show, and what’s left are humanoid aliens, copying what they’ve learned from our Earth broadcasts. Watching them ape us teaches us something about who we are, though the experience tends to be a little creepy.
Key features: None.