The birth of the "beat" movement or, at least the public awareness of its break-out, occurred in the 1950s. It even reached down to "the projects" kids like me with my dark sun-glassed, flannel shirted, black chino-ed look, and a mandatory pinch of teen angst if not of any real understanding of what that break-out meant. The seminal cultural moment for us kids, us clueless 1950s kids, was when the clean, free, breathe of fresh air that we call rock `n' roll crashed onto the scene that also occurred in the be-bop 1950s.
Although the "beat" movement, especially its literary end, was driven, and driven hard by the cool, clean, high white note jazz performed by the likes of Charley Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and in no way frontally drove rock the two easily mingle in memory of that be-bop night. Especially for those of us who really were too young to be washed over by the beats and got our "beatitude" in a more second- hand way but who were dead center when that wild jungle night, "devils' music", "what was that sound, and where can we hear more of it?" drum beat hit our virgin ears about 1955 or so. Call us the stepchildren of one movement, and the children, mad, crash-out, runaway children of the other.
That is the premise behind this one hour documentary as it tries to tap into what the roots of rock were, how it exploded onto the central 1950s teenage stage and how it was tamed beyond redemption, teenage redemption anyway within a few short years. One only needs to say the names Bill Haley and The Comets, Elvis, Jerry Lee, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, and Eddie Cochran, and then say Fabian, Rick Nelson, Conway Tweety, Neil Sedaka, Bobby Vinton and Paul Anka to know that the music had died. And it wasn't coming back, at least not in its innocent, hungry form, just as our youth never did either.
For an hour documentary this one covers a lot of territory. Much time is spent on the roots of rock and who pushed it along and also on the space that what we now call, sadly, classic rock, filled at just that moment in the 1950s when we, meaning teenage America, were desperate to have our own music, our own not-our parents-seal of approval music. If you think about the roots, it is almost a no-brainer that black rhythm and blues would be an important factor as a source for rock. Especially as it came all rambly and scrambly out of the Mississippi Delta and got electrified in the immediate post-World War II period as it followed the black migration north to the Southern river cities and then the Midwest industrial cities. And as it got more sophisticated as its mainly black listeners and a few white "hipsters" settled in. Just listen to early Bill Haley "jump" with that bass line and saxophone on classics like Rock Around The Clock and Shake, Rattle and Roll (even though Big Joe Turner's version on the latter is about ten times better and sexier). Also a no-brainer, since it seems that every poor white boy child of the Great Depression who could strum three chords or pluck a few ivories was putting R&B together with that old time Appalachian mountain twang music, hillbilly music is the influence of rockabilly.. No question that this rock is purely American songbook-worthy music.
As for those who pushed the music first place, rightly I think, goes to Alan Freed (and last place to Dick Clark's American Bandstand, although I like every other breathing 1950s kid frenetically raced home to watch the thing in the afternoon, every afternoon okay). He gets his just desserts here, especially in his attempts to bring to the fore the black groups who originally recorded many of the songs that would be covered by whites and who would gain much wider recognition for those efforts. Also deserving of mention is Sam Phillips and his Sun Record operation that was the first stop north for those who wanted to reach those teens waiting, waiting patiently, waiting out until hell froze over in the cold war night just to hear the likes Of Ike Turner, Chuck Berry, Elvis and Jerry Lee.
Well I've covered the roots, I covered the movers and shakers, and I should mention the "talking head" music historians who give their take, half a century later, on what it all meant. But that is no the real reason to watch this thing. The real reason is to see Bill Haley's sax and bass men hold forth like high heaven's own angels; to see Elvis shake , rattle and roll like some demon sex fiend making all the girls sweat and all the boys practice their moves in dank cellars or before merciless mirrors; to hear Little Richard go wild, male/female wild, high pitched wild at the piano; to see Jerry Lee reach down in some primitive place and drive those ivories to bloody hell; to see Chuck Berry duck walk his stuff; and to see between segues all that jitterbuggery, that shear, happy energy as the kids danced their hearts out. That, my friends, my nostalgic friends was what it was like in that be-bop night of 1950s classic rock.