Imagine that it is 1970 and they have just released "The Frank Sinatra Story" with then 20 year-old David Cassidy playing the Italian crooner from ages 17 through 47. If that sounds weird imagine that the production designer on the film never shows up and they film it as if everything from 1935 to 1965 looks (and everyone talks) like it is set in 1970. Finally imagine that to preserve the 1970's look, all the action takes place inside, with one short scene on an indoor sound stage with fake grass and trees.
That is essentially "The Gene Krupa Story", with bobby soxer heartthrob Sal Mineo replacing Cassidy, Krupa replacing Sinatra, and the look of 1959 replacing 1970. Mineo was the Cassidy of his generation, with about the same level of acting talent but harder working and more willing to take direction.
Like the imagined "Cassidy as Sinatra" film, the idea was to expand the target audience by including someone who would attract teen and pre-teen girls. In this "The Gene Krupa Story" was successful and the film had good box office. The downside was that big band fans generally considered the whole production laughable. My father was a huge Krupa fan and he hated this film with an unprecedented passion. In part for the cheap production design and in part because of Mineo and the reasons for his casting, but largely because of the many factual omissions and distortions. To him the only saving grace was that they used Krupa's actual drumming, to which Mineo is generally in sync although there are times when he is beating a tom and the sound is that of a cymbal.
Like most Hollywood bio movies ("The Lou Gerhig Story", "The Al Jolson Story", etc.) Krupa's mother was violently opposed to her son's ambitions, in this case she and her husband want him to be a priest. But he leaves the seminary to set out for New York with Eddie Sirota (James Darren) and Eddie's composer girlfriend, Ethel (Susan Kohner). After a rough three months Ethel is forced to take a job as a telephone operator and her romantic interest switches to Gene.
Gene's career takes off and he begins running with a fast crowd of 1930's musicians (who sound strangely like a Maynard G. Kreb's take on the 1950's beat scene). A jazz singer named Dorissa Dinell (Susan Oliver) connects him with some dope dealers and the film gets a lot like "Reefer Madness" (but with a 1959 setting). Which may account for a surreal montage of newspaper headlines chronicling his rise to national fame and his fall in a drug bust. There is even an "I told you so" phone call from mom. This has ramifications beyond Krupa as the entire jazz world is outed as dope fiends and corrupter of America's youth. When the chips are down, Dorissa bails on Gene with the classic exit line: "Now if you'll excuse me, I've got a town I'd better get out of." Gene is reduced to playing in strip clubs with other beatnik musicians wearing dark glasses. When it seems like he can't go on another day Ethel re-enters his life and things begin to break his way once again.
For the aging sequences Mineo could draw upon the example James Dean, who he worked with in both "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant". Dean was faced with the same challenge in "Giant" and Mineo's attempt here is clearly superior. So much so that what could have been the film's biggest liability is actually a strength. And Mineo successfully mimics Krupa distinctive drumming style and facial expressions, details that he worked on with Krupa himself. There are seven drum solo set pieces, mostly medium shots that capture the spirit if not the actual magic of a Krupa performance.
Susan Kohner shows considerable range in two of her 1959 films, this one and "Imitation of Life". Here she will remind you of Eva Marie Saint's "On the Waterfront" character, a considerable contrast with the overwrought racially conflicted daughter she played in the other film. The likable James Darren (later to star in television's "The Time Tunnel") is a better singer than an actor. His scenes with Mineo are pretty awful, certainly the film's worst moments, and the fault does not lie with Mineo who tends to play up or down to the level of whoever he shares a scene. The hard working Mineo simply did not have enough talent or training to salvage a scene gone bad and really needed to be surrounded by a strong cast to help him sell his characterizations. Susan Oliver ("Butterfield 8") gets the best role and has a lot of fun with her character, benefiting from having almost all of the film's good lines. "Snow me again, junior, because I didn't quite get your drift."
Then again, what do I know? I'm only a child.