Rock 'n' roll high school

Rock, Baby, Rock It! is classic kitsch, but there's a lesson amid the cheese

Leonard Maltin's Movies on Video called it a "silly period piece"; Video Hound Golden Movie Retriever termed it "weak" and advised that "it probably isn't worth your time." It got attention on It Came From Hollywood, a video collection of cinematic wretchedness, and another video guide awarded it negative stars.

The source of all this approbation is Rock, Baby, Rock It!, a steaming bowl of celluloid queso shot in Dallas back in 1956 and masterminded by an aspiring promoter looking to ride the rapidly growing "rock 'n' roll" fad to the big time. Totally devoid of professional actors, Rock It! is every bit as dreadful as Messrs. Maltin and Hound indicate, but it also has redeeming qualities beyond a "so bad it's good" appeal, garnering a cult reputation and a small but devoted cadre of fans. Rock on Film calls it "one of the most widely sought after, but seldom seen of all rock films" and judges it "a must-see poverty row extravaganza." I was a Teenage Delinquent Rock and Roll Horror Beach Party Movie Book admits that the flick has a "certain charm" and "definitely captures a certain time and place." Straining--as few books do--to be nice, Teenage Delinquent closes its discussion of the film by remarking, "what an assortment of faces!"

Chock full of local musical talent and scenes from pre-freeway Dallas, Rock Baby is a standard variation of the hoary old "let's have a show!" storyline: Kids just having a rockin' good time in their clubhouse are menaced by thugs seeking a front for their organized crime-type skullduggery. The kids decide to fight back. Shot on the cheap as well as the fly (in one week) by a music promoter who went by J.G. Tiger--even though his name was Jack Goldman--the film features performances by contemporary acts like Johnny Carroll, The Cell Block Seven, The Bon-Aires, Rosco Gordon and the Red Tops, and others.

Tiger's budget wasn't big enough for fripperies such as trained actors, and the film--all 77 minutes of it--is as padded as a hotel lobby couch. The "actors" stare at the camera or off into space, get in each other's way, and are generally as self-conscious a bunch as you'd ever chance--or want--to see. Their thick Dallas accents were deemed too regional for the national distribution Tiger (and no doubt his investors) were hoping for, so many lines were ineptly dubbed in California: Rock Baby proudly stands toe-to-toe with any Godzilla movie in terms of noises coming from nowhere, silently moving lips, and complicated feats of ventriloquism. The story is more of a blur than a line, and what movie critics and professors call "the suspension of disbelief" is never even given a warning ticket. The movie's original title--Hot Rocks--was deemed too suggestive, even though that was the name of both the title song and Carroll's band.

Tiger was a character, to say the least. Local jazz guitarist Donnie Gililland played Ronnie, the bespectacled guitarist in the film, and recalls "a huge guy, with a booming voice and this big, long beard." Prior to making Rock It!, Tiger had been a low-level booking agent and concert promoter, one of the first to set up multi-act rock 'n' roll stage shows in the Metroplex.

The big promoter with the even bigger voice had a variety of strategies for keeping obligations at bay. "He chewed raw garlic constantly," Gililland says of Tiger. "Pieces of it would get stuck in his beard and just hang there; he was pretty horrible to be around."

Gililland had been playing around town with various groups since high school, but nobody had enough seasoning to stand up to Tiger. "I think he had a background in wrestling and carnies. He was always working some sort of con; I don't know if it was all an act or not," the guitarist admits. "But we were all kids. Tiger was always very slow to pay, and one of the things he used to say to us was--in lieu of pay--'I'm gonna put you boys in a movie.' Sure enough, he got the funding--I don't know from where--and then he got this director from California."

Tiger had a small stable of local talent that he managed out of Top Ten Recording Studios down on Ross Avenue, groups like Don Coats' Bon-Aires, Johnny Carroll and his Hot Rocks, and others. Rock 'n' roll was just starting to break, and the movie seemed a natural next step up from the small-time regional bookings and package shows that Tiger was putting together, shipping his bands off in the 1948 Packard hearse he used as a bus.

Still, money was always a problem. Gililland recalls more than one person dunning Tiger and driving him to the telephone to desperately beseech, importune, and beg his backers for more money to cover their investments. "He would yell and holler," Gililland says, shaking his head. "Later we found out that the phone wasn't even hooked up."

To avoid having to pay actors, Tiger used "any warm bodies," according to Gililland. Being a warm body for Tiger could take on a very literal meaning, as one hapless transient discovered when the clove-chomping promoter hired him to help with a summer show's advertising in New Orleans. Tiger put the poor guy in a polar bear suit and gave him leaflets that said something like "come to the cool rock and roll show" to hand out; the shill almost died of heatstroke.

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