Marginally better known under its original British title, It's Trad, Dad!, Ring-A-Ding Rhythm (1962) is a real curiosity. Riding the tail end of a wave of cheap, nearly plotless all-star rock 'n' roll movies, it's charmingly naïve and old-fashioned but also highly innovative. It was director Richard Lester's first feature, and visually it anticipates A Hard Day's Night (1964) and Help! (1965) in many respects. And though it features American performers like Chubby Checker, Del Shannon, Gene Vincent, and Gary (U.S.) Bonds, slightly more than 50% of the music actually consists of Dixieland jazz. For those of you too young to know this, the "Trad" in It's Trad, Dad! refers to the postwar revival of traditional jazz: Dixieland and also Ragtime. The movement was especially popular in early-'60s Britain; even The Who began as trad jazz performers.
Although Lester's intense stylization alternates with much more conventional footage, what's there adds enormous energy to an already extremely enjoyable picture. The American performers are very good, but the trad jazz ensembles are frequently sensational, so much so that I actually paused the film at one point to order a CD.
A manufactured-on-demand title from Sony under its "Choice Collection" label, Ring-A-Ding Rhythm is presented in its original 1.66:1 widescreen format with 16:9 enhancement. The black and white film looks great, and other than the title change apparently it's identical to the British version.
Craig (Craig Douglas) and Helen (Helen Shapiro) are a couple of swell kids who like to hang-out at the local coffee bar and dance to trad jazz. However, the town's fuddy-duddy mayor (Felix Felton) finds this music offensive and moves to revoke the license on the shop's jukebox and television. ("Great Balls of Fire" or "Tutti-Fruiti" maybe, but "When the Saints Go Marching In" and W.C. Handy as incendiary instruments of the Devil? That's a pretty hard sell.) They visit a television studio hoping to line up a disc jockey and some live acts for a benefit to prove the cultural value of jazz and rock 'n' roll. You bet.
And that's it. For most of the picture's 78 minutes, Craig and Helen peer into various recording studios and watch parts (rarely all) of myriad live acts. At the end, more performers and three famous record-spinners (David Jacobs, Pete Murray, and Alan Freeman) appear at an outdoor event that's like one big, infectious party.
American producers Max Rosenberg and Milton Subotsky got their start producing several of the earliest rock and roll movies: Rock Rock Rock! (1956) and Jamboree! (1957). (They had a fondness for exclamation points.) The partners relocated to England and formed Amicus Productions, a rival to Hammer that eventually became best known for its horror anthologies, notably Dr. Terror's House of Horrors (1964), Tales from the Crypt (1972), and Vault of Horror (1973). It's Trad, Dad! was the company's first feature.
Richard Lester (billed as "Dick Lester" in the credits) has imagination to spare, here incorporating many of the distinctive stylizations and comic sensibility he'd perfect in A Hard Day's Night: fast-motion and even backward-motion for comic effect; the use of split screens and still photographs during musical numbers. His surreal approach to comedy is similar to Frank Tashlin, though more concentrated. At the coffee bar a gardener trims the indoor foliage, spots some lettuce spilling out from a sandwich and takes his garden shears to that, finally spraying it with Flit in a coup de grâce. The fourth wall is frequently broken: at one point Craig asks the film's narrator for help. In another scene, frustrated by a doorman determined not to let Craig and Helen pass, Craig turns to camera asking, "Can't you do something about this character?" The doorman promptly is on the receiving end of a cream pie.
Craig Douglas and Helen Shapiro were themselves pop stars, albeit virtually unknown in America, and their amateurish acting (but sincere performances) add to the picture's charm. Shapiro's "Walkin' Back to Happiness" reached #100 on Billboard's "Hot 100" pop music chart, for a single week, an unusual distinction. And like Lester, Shapiro has her own Beatles connection: for their first national tour across Britain, the Beatles supported her act. Paul McCartney even wrote the song "Misery" for her, which her handlers unwisely declined to record.
It's hard to reconcile such a dizzying jumble of styles dominated by trad jazz but also incorporating rockabilly and R&B. Amusingly, the American performers all tend to sweat profusely while the Brits not at all, as various Americans and Brits smoke prodigiously throughout. Gene McDaniels's otherwise sensational "Another Tear Falls" becomes amusing when, without missing a beat, he takes a deep drag on a smoke mid-lyric and exhales it for the rest of the number like he's on fire. Similarly, clarinetist Acker Bilk, backed by his Paramount Jazz Band, manages several hot numbers despite the loss of half a finger plus a lit cigarette wedged under another. (Like Django Reinhardt, Bilk's handicap supposedly contributed to his unique sound.)
Besides McDaniels, Gene Vincent (performing "Space Ship to Mars"), Gary U.S. Bonds ("Seven Day Weekend"), Chubby Checker ("Lose Your Inhibition Twist"), and Del Shannon ("You Never Talked About Me") are all terrific, but what really grabbed my attention were several of the trad jazz groups, particularly Acker Bilk's ("In a Persian Market," "High Society") and the Temperance Seven ("Everybody Loves My Baby," "Dream Away Romance"). The latter group had music produced by George Martin, performed in the stage version of The Bed-Sitting Room (co-written by Spike Milligan) and were an influence on later groups such as the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band.
Video & Audio
Presented on a region-free DVD-R, Ring-A-Ding Rhythm/It's Trad, Dad! gets a good 16:9 enhanced widescreen transfer, crisp and sharp with strong blacks and good contrast. The mono audio, English only with no subtitle options (or even a menu screen; the movie automatically starts and restarts without one), is likewise fine. No Extra Features, unfortunately.
This is a real surprise, a delightfully old-fashioned and innovative trad jazz/rock 'n' roll musical uniquely positioned at the end of one revolution and the start of another. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.