Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

It’s Trad, Dad!

(Ring-a-Ding Rhythm!, UK, 1962)

It’s Trad, Dad! (1962) I’ve wanted to see this film for many, many years. It was Richard Lester’s first feature film, released in the US as Ring-a-Ding Rhythm! I guess most Beatlemaniacs (I am one) know that what influenced John Lennon to want Lester to direct the first Beatles film was that he was a fan of a short that Lester made in 1960 with Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan called The Running Jumping & Standing Still Film. (This little gem was also obviously an influence on Monty Python.)

After that short, he made It’s Trad, Dad! I had always wondered if it was an influence on A Hard Day’s Night.

Well, don’t you just love the Internet? I found a DVD copy of this extremely rare film for sale on eBay from a guy in England, and I snapped it up. (The guy assured me it should play on any DVD player, but when it arrived I found that mine wasn’t one of them. Luckily, the player in my computer was able to decode it.)

So, is it anything like A Hard Day’s Night? Yes!!! Very much so! It’s an amazing little film, a time capsule, and perhaps more important in the history of film than even the Beatles film that followed it … though, of course, not seen by nearly as many people. This film is where Richard Lester learned his distinctive way of making movies, that he later put to use with the Fab Four. A very good case has been made recently that Richard Lester basically invented the music video. From Wikipedia:

Roger Ebert says that today when we watch TV and see quick cutting, hand-held cameras, interviews conducted on the run with moving targets, quickly intercut snatches of dialogue, music under documentary action and all the other trademarks of the modern style, we are looking at the children of A Hard Day’s Night.

Which, in turn, was the child of It’s Trad, Dad! The form of the film is pretty much like those awful Alan Freed Rock and Roll films of the late ‘50s, like Rock Around the Clock and Don’t Knock the Rock: Small-town kids want to dance to their loud new groove, but stuffy townspeople think it’s the Devil’s music. After much dancing to the hot new groups of the day, the parents discover there ain’t nothin’ bad about Rock. Only Lester spoofs these movies mercilessly. The man characters are A Boy (Craig Douglas) and A Girl. (15-year-old Helen Shapiro, who was a big star in England at the time. Did you know that when the Beatles first went on tour, they had second billing to Helen Shapiro? She was the bigger star. I didn’t know that.) They are so labeled by a narrator, with arrows pointing to them. They live in “A town which shall remain nameless,” and we see a sign saying WELCOME TO ___________ Pop. 343. Later, when they need to get to London, the Boy and Girl face the camera and ask the narrator if he can help them out. Presto, the background is swept away and replaced with another one. Lester delights in fracturing the thin fiction that this is all real, and employs every trick he would later use in the Beatles films and in The Knack, and How to Get It, my personal favorite of his movies.

Recognizing that the plot in movies like this is really just a way of stringing the musical stuff together, Lester squeezes an astonishing number of performances into this 74 minute film. The script, the non-music moments with actual dialogue, probably could have been written on a post-it note. I’d guess that 60 minutes of the film are music.

And here’s an historical oddity. About two-thirds of the music is … Dixieland! The British called it “traditional jazz” (It’s Trad!), and it was enjoying a revival in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s in England. Listening to it, I suspected that the fad grew out of skiffle music, which the early Beatles played. If you like Dixieland (and I do), you will hear some of the best you’ve ever heard from groups like The Temperance Seven and Mr. Acker Bilk. (Remember him? If you only know him from that treacly hit “Stranger on the Shore,” you’re in for a surprise. The dude can wail on that clarinet!). If you don’t like Dixieland … this movie is probably not for you. But if you can tolerate it, the other third of the music is right across the broad spectrum of rock and roll in those just-pre-Beatles days, from the nostalgically awful, to stuff that still sounds good today. You’ll hear Chubby Checker, Gene Vincent, Gary U.S. Bonds, the Paris Sisters, and Gene McDaniels.

And you’ll soon see what I’m saying about Lester inventing the music video. Remember how new and daring those MTV videos looked when they first started making them? It’s all right here, in this little film. Each musical performance has a different slant to it, some of them hilarious, all of them groundbreaking, and every one is a little gem. These musical bits would soon be imitated by many lesser talents. It left me wishing that Lester had made a film about some other rock groups as well, or of a concert, like Martin Scorsese has done. I’ll bet it would have been bad, dad!