Can a penniless teenager, raised in an orphanage and self-trained as a musician, overcome the odds and win the star search radio contest hosted by superstar disc jockey Alan Freed? It’s a cinch because Go, Johnny, Go! (1959), directed by Paul Landres, is a clichéd Hollywood fantasy of pop stardom modeled on previous box office hits like Rock Around the Clock (1956) and Jailhouse Rock (1957). Yes, the story is trite, the acting is wooden and its low-budget, set-bound look is uninteresting, but none of that is important when you consider the musical talent on display in the film. With such early rock ‘n roll pioneers as Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and Ritchie Valens blazing across the screen, Go, Johnny, Go! is not only an invaluable pop culture document but an immensely entertaining and occasionally cynical look at the burgeoning music industry of the late fifties.
Typical of most rock films of its era, Go, Johnny, Go! presents a distinctly ordered music universe where white musicians headline supported by – in many cases – much more talented and dynamic black entertainers. It was a time when singers like Pat Boone covered songs such as Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” and Fats Domino’s “Ain’t That a Shame”, often outselling the original versions. It’s no different in Go, Johnny, Go! where Chuck Berry plays a “yes man” associate of DJ Alan Freed and a sideline cheerleader of whitebread singer Jimmy Clanton. But there’s simply no contest here as Berry blows his two co-stars off the screen whenever he appears; his performance of “Memphis, Tennessee” is a particular highlight.
In all fairness, Clanton was more talented than such fellow teen idols as Tommy Sands or Fabian and was part of the New Orleans music scene. In fact, his debut single, “Just a Dream,” was recorded with session musicians Mac Rebennack (a.k.a. Dr. John) and Allen Toussaint who would soon become famous for their own songs. In Go, Johnny, Go!, Clanton specializes in soulful ballads (“My Love is Strong”) and finger-snapping ditties (“Angel Face”) but none of them can compare to Jackie Wilson’s expert rendition of “You Better Know It” or The Flamingos’ hyperactive performance of “Jump Children,” featuring a variety of James Brown-like dance moves.
Alan Freed, not known for his musical chops, even gets into the action at one point, playing drums in a late night club jam scene with Berry. But his real expertise and claim to fame was popularizing rock music and breaking down racial barriers through his radio shows. An enterprising businessman with a talent for spotting genuine musical talent, Freed is not too convincing playing himself in Go, Johnny, Go! though he’d had plenty of practice by this point; he’d appeared in Rock Around the Clock, Don’t Knock the Rock (both 1956), Rock, Rock, Rock and Mr. Rock and Roll (both 1957). He’s a quirky screen presence who’s both rigid and insincere – would you sign a record contract with this man? – and his big dramatic scene – acting drunk to distract policemen from a robbery attempt by up-and-coming singer Johnny Melody (Clanton) – is pretty lame. Still, watching Freed doing his radio gig in Go, Johnny, Go! you get a sense of his relentless zeal for self-promotion and his musician hustler bravado.
At the time the film was made, Chuck Berry enjoyed a good relationship with Freed who had helped advance his career by previewing a copy of “Maybelline” on his radio show; it became his first major hit. Later, however, the friendship cooled. According to Berry in his autobiography, Freed was a heavy drinker and “at one of those loose-speaking drink gatherings, a bit of information was exposed that induced Alan to tell me that he intended to give me back the one-third writer’s-credit rip off from Chess’s false registration of “Maybelline.” This was a promise that lingered on through his death and probated estate. It was sometime in the late seventies that I finally got litigation going that brought me rightful full ownership of the copyright.”
As for the filming of Go, Johnny, Go!, Berry recalled that it was made in five days in Culver City, California at the Hal Roach Studio: “My greatest thrill while there was seeing all the big movie cameras and technical equipment I had only seen in photos. There were lots of people walking around doing nothing, it seemed, but surely on the payroll…The making of Go, Johnny, Go! came around a short tour I was doing through southern California where the movie studios paid for hotel accommodations and food for the cast. I thought that was terrific because I nearly always acquired residence at the cheapest little motel near the airport, which also aided in making the morning flight to the next concert. Sometimes I was invited to a party after the concert and would be out too late to check in anywhere so I would drive on to the local airport and park my Hertz car directly in front of the terminal door entrance, curl up in the back seat, and dream of a king bed with queen covering.”
Later in their careers both Berry and Freed would end up in trouble with the law; Berry for tax evasion and solicitation of underage girls and Freed for payola charges (taking bribes from record companies). Go, Johnny, Go! marked Freed’s final film appearance but he would later be immortalized by actor Tim McIntire in the 1978 cult film American Hot Wax, which presents Freed as a rock ‘n’ roll visionary. As for Chuck Berry, he would be honored with a film tribute celebrating his 60th birthday at two concerts in St. Louis. Directed by Taylor Hackford, the musical documentary was entitled Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (1987). Berry would later die at age 90 in Wentzville, Missouri in 2017.
Ritchie Valens, who makes an unforgettable cameo appearance singing “Ooh! My Head,” barely even had a career. Go, Johnny, Go! marks his only feature film appearance; he died in a plane crash with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper before the film was released but he did get to see a preview of it, remarking “I’m not much good, but I hope my mother likes me.” On the contrary, he generates real electricity in his short number, his raucous voice and assured guitar playing at odds with his baby face.
The other memorable acts in Go, Johnny, Go! include Harvey [Fuqua] (of the Moonglows) singing “Don’t Be Afraid to Love,” Jo-Ann Campbell’s saucy “Mama, Can I Go Out?”, The Cadillacs performing “Please Mr. Johnson” and “Jay Walker”, and Sandy Stewart, cast in the unflattering role of Clanton’s girlfriend/aspiring vocalist, doing a full orchestra version of “Playmate.”
Additional trivia: The working titles for the movie were Johnny Melody, The Swinging Story, and The Swinging Story of Johnny Melody but was ultimately changed to Go, Johnny, Go after Clanton’s popular single, “Go, Jimmy, Go.” Jimmy Clanton would appear in one more film, Teenage Millionaire in 1961, but his music career began to fade after he was drafted into the army and was over by the mid-sixties as the British Invasion took over American pop charts. He became a disc jockey in the 70s and began to perform again in revival shows. One of his songs, “Just a Dream,” was featured in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1986 film, Peggy Sue Got Married.
Pioneer rock ‘n’ roller Eddie Cochran had previously appeared in two films prior to Go, Johnny, Go!. He played himself in the 1956 rock satire The Girl Can’t Help It and was cast as a character named Bong in the 1957 youth exploitation drama Untamed Youth in which he croons the song “Cottonpicker,” written by Les Baxter. This marked his third and final film appearance and he died prematurely at age 21 in a traffic accident in England after the end of his British tour there in April 1960.
Go, Johnny, Go! has been available in various DVD editions of inferior quality over the years but a much improved DVD upgrade occurred in 2017 when it was released by The Sprocket Vault with an audio commentary by Richard M. Roberts, Randy Skretvedt and Brent Walker.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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