How did Richard Lester get the job of directing the Beatles milestone A Hard Day’s Night? The energetic cutting, the virtual invention of the music video, the off-the-wall surrealism—it’s all in his charming debut feature, Ring-a-Ding Rhythm (UK title: It’s Trad, Dad!), available on demand from the Sony Choice Collection.
Spoofing his background in TV, the American-in-England Lester makes a mock-movie full of sight gags and technical play, narrated by an obliging voice who bestows magical whimsies on the young man and woman (Craig Douglas, Helen Shapiro) who wander around trying to find a deejay to host a Dixieland Jazz festival in their town. Along the way they run into various rock acts. It’s all as airy as the cream pie that plays into the movie’s best surprise joke (and foreshadows one of Woody Allen’s best jokes in Annie Hall”!).
Lester shoots the performances in various inventive ways, the opposite of the previous ten years of “rock” movies where, in the middle of a dull and witless plot, the camera dropped into a slouch before a parade of gratuitous acts. Lester’s approach is especially refreshing in that most of the songs are non-starters, although all are produced in the era’s lushly operatic British style. Gene McDaniels is a show-stopper, calmly belting out a breathtaking Bacharach & David ballad called “Another Tear Falls” while smoking a cigarette, the white smoke curling up around his deep black face like he’s posing for a Verve album cover; the credits indicate that some of the American artists were shot in the U.S. under someone else’s supervision.
It’s wild to hear Dixieland versions of “There’s a Tavern in the Town” or “O Tannenbaum,” or to see a lily-white performer like Ottilie Patterson belt out “Down by the Riverside” and “When the Saints Go Marching In,” but hey, they swing like crazy. Also present are Chubby Checker (“Lose Your Inhibition Twist”!), a sweaty Del Shannon, Gary U.S. Bonds, John Leyton, the Paris Sisters, the Brook Brothers, Kenny Ball, several others you never heard of, and a gag act called The Temperance Seven. It turns out that even our two starring kids can belt it out, with Shapiro a startlingly powerful teen contralto along the lines of Timi Yuro. She would soon tour with an unknown supporting act called The Beatles.
This was written and produced by Milton Subotsky for Amicus, the company he co-founded, later famous for horror films. Subotsky and partner Max Rosenberg were more Yanks in England who made good, like Lester. For the film, Subotsky also wrote the brilliantly stupid “Bellissima” for Bob Wallis and His Storyville Jazzmen, the quite idiotic “Spaceship to Mars” (with music director Norrie Paramor) for Gene Vincent, and the swingin’ new lyrics to Acker Bilk’s rendition of “Frankie and Johnnie”. Oh mercy.