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Looking back at 'Blackboard Jungle', the first-ever rock and roll movie

In 1955, rock ‘n’ roll had just started to make waves; however, its presence remained underground, and the movement resembled a dangerous foreign entity to the average person. The genre occupied a frightful demeanour that scared the living daylights out of the masses, and the groundbreaking movie Blackboard Jungle played a pivotal part in the emergence of rock music to the mainstream.

Rock and roll has a rich history within the realm of cinema, and it lends itself to the screens magnetically. Throughout the late 1950s, a swarm of icons like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Fats Domino starred in movies, which allowed their music to travel to places they wouldn’t normally visit on tour. Elvis famously never played a show outside North America, but his cinematic exploration allowed everyone to get a taste of what it was like to witness The King in action.

However, the first of its kind was Blackboard Jungle, which wasn’t a concert film but a feature that centred around Bill Haley’s ‘(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock’ and catapulted the word of rock ‘n’ roll into the stratosphere. The song was played over the film’s opening credits, appeared in the first scene, an instrumental featured in the middle, and at the end.

Some theatres decided to mute the audio at the start of the film because rock ‘n’ roll was chastised as a grave influence on young audiences. However, whether they liked it or not, the genre was an unstoppable train, and nothing could prevent it from sweeping through America. Furthermore, in addition to the progressive use of Haley’s track, director Richard Brooks also cast a young Sidney Poitier in the lead role at a time when black people didn’t have equal rights and, under the letter of the law, were deemed as second class citizens.

The film dealt with inner-city violence and put a section of society under the microscope that cinema previously neglected. The choice of music in Blackboard Jungle only enhanced the depraved image that the media had chalked up about the scene and added to its mystique. Shockingly, the film was refused a cinema certificate in the UK until authorities passed a heavily edited version. 

Frank Zappa was one of the impressionable teenagers that caught it in cinemas, and he later talked about the mesmerising experience. In The Oracle Has It All Psyched Out, he recalled: “But then I remember going to see Blackboard Jungle. When the titles flashed up there on the screen Bill Haley & His Comets started blurching ‘One Two Three O’Clock, Four O’Clock Rock’ It was the loudest rock sound kids had ever heard at that time. I remember being inspired with awe.

“In cruddy little teenage rooms across America, kids had been huddling around old radios and cheap record players listening to the ‘dirty music’ of their lifestyle. (‘Go intheatreoom if you wanna listen to that crap…and turn the volume all the way down.’) But in the theater, watching Blackboard Jungle, they couldn’t tell you to turn it down. I didn’t care if Bill Haley was white or sincere…he was playing the ‘Teenage National Anthem’, and it was so LOUD I was jumping up and down.”

Zappa concluded: “Blackboard Jungle, not even considering the storyline (which had the old people winning in the end) represented a strange sort of ‘endorsement’ of the teenage cause: ‘They have made a movie about us, therefore, we exist’.”

The movie was a grand success at cinemas, and soon enough, ‘(We’re Gonna) Rock Around The Clock’ became the most important song in the States. Despite being released a year before the film, it only matured into a hit after Blackboard Jungle, making the song the first-ever rock ‘n’ roll number one, but it wouldn’t be the last.

Few films have had a seismic cultural impact that compares to Blackboard Jungle. It captured the mood of the nation’s ignored youth and changed the direction of the popular landscape. Rock ‘n’ roll finally had the stage it warranted, and once it raced out from the guerillas, its grasp on the world only thickened. 

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