Cast & Crew
In New York City, ballad singer Tommy Adano disdains the new rock and roll music even though his manager, Charlie, warns him that rock and roll will eclipse his old-fashioned ballads. When Billboard magazine pans Tommy's latest release, Tommy takes Charlie's advice and agrees to appear on a bill with young rock and roller Paul Anka, whose new song has just been named record of the week by Billboard . After the show, the teenage audience mobs Anka but ignores Tommy. Tommy's lone admirer is Kathy Abbott, an aspiring songwriter who has penned the tune on the flip side of his record. Tommy invites Kathy to dinner and later, as he walks her home, they agree to keep their friendship on a "casual" basis. Before he says goodnight, Tommy asks Kathy to meet him at Wink Martindale's Rock and Roll Party television show the following day. On the show, when Tommy performs Kathy's song, written in the form of a waltz, the teenage audience loses interest, prompting Wink to cancel Tommy's second number. Meanwhile, Charlie meets with Shep Harris, the head of Empire Records, Tommy's record label, to beg Shep to promote Tommy's new release. After Shep states that Tommy's style is a "money loser," Charlie asks Shep to let Tommy record a rock and roll song. When Charlie proposes the idea to Tommy, however, the singer refuses, certain that he is incapable of singing rock and roll. That night, Tommy attends a rock and roll concert, and after the audience applauds wildly, he becomes depressed and goes to see Kathy at the club where she works as a hat check girl. When Kathy informs him that she cannot simply walk off her job and leave with him, Tommy decides to go home with an attractive fan who has been flirting with him at the bar. After they reach her apartment, the fan plays Kathy's song, causing Tommy to feel guilty and leave. As Tommy mopes over his estrangement from Kathy, Charlie tells him that Empire is recording several of her songs and sends him to the studio to see her. After Tommy apologizes, they kiss and Kathy convinces him to give rock and roll a chance. Some time later, as Tommy belts out a rock and roll tune, he is rewarded with the adulation of the audience.
Danny And The Juniors
S. Chas. Rawson
Just don't look for anything like Elvis Presley's sullen pout and sexy gyrations in Jailhouse Rock (1957) or Jerry Lee Lewis pounding a piano from the bed of a flatbed truck in High School Confidential! (1958). This film subsists mainly on a diet of white bread, although one of its likable elements is its unforced inclusion of African-American talent and its honest acknowledgment of rock's black antecedents. Phyllis Newman's songwriter girlfriend to La Rosa's singer, Tommy Adane, is a smart cookie. She's switching styles to stay current, and doesn't see why he can't. It's not that he's afraid to try, as she laments. It's that he knows it isn't him, that he couldn't do it from the heart and that the result would be hollow and empty.
A neatly-written scene tells the story better than any of the dialogue, when he points out to Newman four black school kids improvising rock dance steps as they circle Central Park's lake. He could never do it with their naturalness, he tries to explain. But no go. After a lot of back and forth, he capitulates at the end, threatened with cancellation of his record deal. On a variety show featuring Dick Clark-like host Wink Martindale, he and a dance ensemble perform a number called Crazy, Crazy Party. Crazy is the one thing it is not. It's staged on an upper middle-class suburban living room set in which not a drop of lemonade is spilled nor a single paper cup tipped over.
Of course, it didn't quite go down that way in real life, as audiences knew. For years Brooklyn-born La Rosa was famous for being fired on air by powerful variety show host Arthur Godfrey for lacking "humility." At the time, some said it was because La Rosa was getting more fan mail than Godfrey and because La Rosa wiggled out from under Godfrey's thumb, signed his own record deal and promptly recorded the biggest single of his career, Eh Cumpari. Godfrey's big variety host rival, Ed Sullivan, promptly invited La Rosa to his show for multiple appearances, while Godfrey's bile undermined his folksy image and sent his career into decline. Nobody liked seeing Goliath trample David.
It helped that La Rosa projected an easy amiability and never responded to Godfrey in kind. He never took a career run at his idol Frank Sinatra (who did?). But he was an honest, full-throated singer who brought emotional conviction to his ballads. He has enjoyed a long career (although not in feature films - this was his only one) as a TV actor, disc jockey and mostly singer. His persona doesn't just count for a lot in Let's Rock. It keeps the film on life support. Certainly none of the dozen songs do (La Rosa sings four - one a duet with Newman), although the professionalism of Paul Anka, Roy Hamilton and especially Della Reese in a generic number called Lonelytown are distinct assets.
Hamilton, more recalling Johnny Mathis than James Brown, died of tuberculosis, aged 40. There's no telling where his honeyed tones might have risen on the rising tide of rock, after enjoying huge hits with You'll Never Walk Alone and Unchained Melody. More than any of the others, Hamilton's instrumental backing by The Tyrones also reminds us that before the guitar dominated rock, a lot of it pushed off from saxophones, underscoring jazz's contribution to the emerging form. The supporting slots also include Danny & The Juniors performing At the Hop and The Royal Teens with their sassy Short Shorts. Ironically, Conrad Janis, who never goes near an instrument in his role as Tommy's agent and Brill Building denizen, long had been a professional real-life jazz trombonist. Despite its reminder in a barroom pickup scene that bullet bras did far more damage than '50s rock, the film remains a sweet little preserved-in-amber artifact.
It's plain, straightforward and unpretentious, and while it may be argued that Let's Rock has a lot to be unpretentious about, it also is kept alive by an emotional honesty at its core. Most films starring luminaries from another medium are tailored to the stars' public personae. This one makes contact with the career anxieties dogging La Rosa and other balladeers at the time. When he sits on the stoop of Newman's apartment house, in his ever-present raincoat, agonizing over what lies ahead, not wanting to fire the hangers-on from his payroll or give up his $1000-a-month penthouse apartment (those were the days!), you know the convivial crooner didn't have to take acting lessons to find the scene's dramatic engine. In later years, La Rosa could look back upon a quite durable career and say, "We didn't have to contend with rock 'n' roll back then, and when it came, I still didn't have to contend with it." But he couldn't say it for sure in 1958.
By Jay Carr
Harry Foster's onscreen credit reads "produced and directed by Harry Foster." Let's Rock marked the feature film debut of Foster, who formerly produced and directed short films for Columbia. The film also marked the screen debuts of singer Paul Anka and television personality Wink Martindale, who was, at the time, a popular disc jockey on KFWB radio in Los Angeles, and the sole film appearance of Julius La Rosa, a singer who rose to national prominence in the early 1950s on the popular CBS television program Arthur Godfrey and His Friends.