Movies about Early Rock and Roll

February 3, 1959 is known as The Day the Music Died. It was on that date that a plane crash took the lives of three of the biggest names in the burgeoning world of rock and roll. That first tragic plane crash that hit the world of rock and roll would turn out to be just the first of a surprisingly large number of such events. While the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper is certainly nothing to laugh about, what better way to disprove the idea that the music died that day than by watching some comedy films about those wild, unpredictable and not a little crazy days when rock and roll was trying to capture the attention of teenagers, tick off their parents and maybe even change the world a little?

American Hot Wax

This 1978 comedy spins a platter that sings a song about rock and roll’s origins from the perspective not of one of the musical acts, but a figure perhaps even more important in the genre’s development. Alan Freed was a DJ who if not actually the first was definitely one of the first white radio personalities to play what was called black music back then. The underappreciated and underutilized Tim McIntire gives the best performance of his career as Freed and dominates a movie that kind of feels like one of those cheesy 1950’s low budget flicks that exploited the popularity of rock music as a way to distract from stories with little plot and indistinguishable characters. One of the things that makes “American Hot Wax” fun to watch today is the chance to catch an early glimpse of future stars like Jay Leno, Fran Drescher and a rare appearance by Laraine Newman outside of TV on a Saturday Night.

That Thing You Do!

Tom Hanks’ directorial debut was refreshingly simple instead of the typical overbloated epic that actors often pick in order to show how serious they are about directing. The time period of “That Thing You Do!” is the early 60’s when attempts to actually create a day in which rock music died were finally jettisoned in reluctant favor of acceptance and assimilation. Any time something as raw as early rock and roll actually was gets assimilated into the mainstream, the sharp edges are filed down and the danger is softened. “That Thing You Do!” is a sweet yet offbeat little comedy about that period between Elvis losing his edge when he returned from the army and the arrival of the Beatles. Record producers around the country saw the potential for a very advantageous work-to-income ratio in taking advantage of the revenue opportunities offered even by a one hit wonder. The movie makes you laugh throughout even as it captures the sense of nostalgia, hope and the sense that everything was somehow about to change very quickly.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand

That something came from Liverpool in the form of four young men with funny accents, terrific senses of humor and a freakish ability to recreate themselves over and over. Once upon a time director Robert Zemeckis enjoyed working with actors who played actual human beings. He should take a break from his obsession with motion capture animation and pull out his copy of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and try to replicate it’s charm. The area of the early days of rock and roll covered by this movie is the intense effect the music had on teenage fans. The story is about a group of typically crazed Beatlemaniacs doing everything possible to ensure they are in the audience when the Beatles appear on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”