Steve Hollis (Johnny Johnston) is the manager of a dance band, but they are going out of fashion as he finds tonight when a sparsely attended show does little for their funds. So little that he quits there and then to seek some more lucrative acts to promote, though one member of the band, bass player Corny LaSalle (Henry Slate), elects to join him in his quest, leaving the rest of the musicians behind. As they set off along the country roads of the United States, they wonder what's out there but before long they have their answer: a surprisingly popular dance out in a smalltown which piques Steve's interest. Just who are Bill Haley and the Comets?
Only the band that started the rock and roll craze, and by extension were responsible for the rest of rock and pop leading up to the present day, that's who. But watching the movie shot in the first month of 1956 designed to cash in on the interest in the movement, you may be pondering that surely there were acts better suited to spearheading a global revolution in music than this lot, no matter how catchy their signature tune was. They performed a few numbers here, and Bill got a few lines, but they were long way from Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran... if anything, they were more Pat Boone than Buddy Holly, yet there were a few months in the centre of the decade where they were seen as actively dangerous.
In Britain, there were riots as the Teddy Boys were fired up by the bouncing beat of Rock Around the Clock which they took as their anthem and so concerned were American authorities that they took to banning this movie in certain cities. You watch it now and it seems absurdly inoffensive, an update of many a cheap musical flick from the thirties designed to showcase a few bands and singers for those curious to see what they looked like having only known them from their records. In this case, Bill Haley and his Comets (Haley's Comets, geddit?) were a bunch of cheery middle-aged chaps who were energetic but not anyone's idea of a teen idol - you can well understand why the fever needed an Elvis Presley to become the figurehead.
In fact, although their music was heard Haley and company were not even the stars of their own movie. That duty belonged to Johnston, already middle-aged himself, and a collection of not very famous (i.e. cheap) actors producer Sam Katzman had assembled purely to cash in, he being a seasoned exponent of that sort of cinematic opportunism. Also along for the ride were former beauty queen Alix Talton as the supposedly super-bitchy promoter who Steve is trying to interest in his new find, though she turns out predictably to be a pussycat, and Debra Paget's sister Lisa Gaye who took care of the dancing Johnston couldn't have approximated in a million years. She performs in front of the band, and say what you like about the rest of it, at least part of the energy of that initial excitement was captured in the dancing.
Rather uncomfortably, nineteen-year-old Gaye got to be the fortysomething Johnston's love interest as well - did they have a problem working out the target audience? Even Breakin', this film's most obvious descendent, sorted the generation gap with some conviction, although to be fair the concept of teenagers embracing a fashion their parents just didn't understand was being crystalised by the rock 'n' roll phenomenon about this point in time. There were other acts here to complement Haley, a Latin American musician Tony Martinez, suggesting confusion, easy availability or both as the reason for his inclusion, Freddie Bell and the Bellboys who supplied light and disposable tunes you won't remember within a minute of their numbers being over, and the classier Platters, who were lumped in with a lot of early rock but more fitting to an earlier age of crooning, though they are the most skilled band we hear. DJ Alan Freed, for whom this music would make and break him, showed up too, but watch this for Haley and the Comets: within the year he'd be a hasbeen. Fickle business, eh?