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Saw Richard Lester's It's Trad, Dad a few days ago.
Although originally from Philadelphia, by 1962 Dick Lester had been working in British comedy for a good decade, collaborating with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan (among others). Lester has been involved with a number of well-known films (A Hard Day’s Night, Help!, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, The Three Musketeers, The Four Musketeers, Superman), but his earlier films - the ones showing his roots - are a little harder to catch.
It’s Trad, Dad (titled Ring-A-Ding Rhythm in the US), released in 1962, immediately precedes A Hard Day’s Night. Part of, but not exactly one of, the stream of rock ‘n roll films that started with Rock Around the Clock, it’s the story of a UK Town Which Shall Remain Nameless, its mayor who just wants a quiet cup of coffee, and the town teens who want to listen to traditional (Dixieland) jazz all day and all night. And in that well-travelled tradition, the kids have a hare-brained plot to get around the Town Council’s opposition by hosting a jazz show in the main square. It’s amazing how little the formula has changed: a few months ago I saw 100% Arabica which is the exact same thing except the kids are Arabs / Black Africans in a Parisian hood, and the music is Rai.
First Impression : Lester definitely knew how to capture musicians on film – at least musicians in this time period with their particular performance formula.The camerawork and shots are great and fresh – the musical performances may be formulaic, but the shooting's definitely not. And the black and white is incredibly warm (also captured later in A Hard Day’s Night). He’s got his music cred down, too: a string of performers at the top of the UK charts, including Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, and Gary U.S. Bonds, not to mention a leading lady (Helen Shapiro) for whom the Beatles opened round about this time. All the acts are consummate musicians and hardened enough to avoid deer-in-the-headlights performances. Only criticism: there are a few too many acts. The sheer number of performances (26 in a 78-minute movie, or one every 3 minutes) means that there’s only so much plot, and it’s going to slow waaay down in parts.
Second Impression : one of the reasons The Beatles selected Lester to direct A Hard Day's Night was his sense of humor. And in this movie, the humor’s definitely there. Sight gags, a few Judy Garland / Mickey Rooney moments (“Hey kids, let’s put on a show!”), and the narrator as deus ex machina – no, not award material, but a fun ride. The funny bits may be more polished in later movies, but they are front and center in the way he handles the material.
Third Impression : whoa, wait a minute… why would any teen in her/his right mind get manic over… Dizieland jazz? What’s with the finger snapping and fast footwork? Some theories:
- The UK went through a minor Dixieland fad in the early 60s and the filmmakers decided that that would be a great twist on the standard rock ‘n roll movie plot. Problem: it is, but the rock ‘n roll overshadows the jazz. Even the heroine gets sidetracked from tracking down some jazz saviors - not to mention her boyfriend - by the crooning of a rock ‘n roller in a recording studio (okay, an excuse for another song, but you know what I mean). The implication is that the jazz isn’t strong enough to carry the movie on its own.
- Intentionally or not, the film is a satire of the whole rock ‘n roll movie genre. By this point, six years and many copycats had passed since Rock Around the Clock, and the genre was ripe for parody. Here, the teens are in their perpetual fight to play their music, the adults are adamant even though we know it’s a lost cause – but the music is likely what the grandparents would’ve fought over with their parents back in the day. Given what I’ve learned about Lester’s background (and how many millions of times I’ve seen A Hard Day’s Night), this would be the crowning joke of all the comedy touches. I’ve heard the word "surreal" used (by Lester and others) to describe what he was doing, and you can’t get much more surreal than the same music argument, 30-40 years on. All the conflict of the rock ‘n roll genre presented as, in the end, Much Ado About Nothing. And this interpretation shoots the film into a much higher comedy orbit... sort of a Monty Python treatment of the rock 'n roll movie.
Overall, a dress rehearsal for his work with The Beatles (which, as he states, gave him a career in film), a little heavy-handed with the music, but a pretty enjoyable hour and a quarter.