Rock'n'Roll was the brainchild of U.S promoter Lee Gordon. After arriving in Australia in 1953, the already well experienced showbiz and marketing entrepreneur quickly established his business base within Australia. With plenty of contacts overseas and a swag of marketing tricks he'd developed as a salesman, Gordon instantly identified the fertile soils of Australia with which to grow an entertainment empire.
The idea of creating a feature film out of a live Australian concert was one of many ventures Gordon had advanced in a very small chunk of time while operating here. By no means a conservative investor and operator, the bullish and tireless man from Detroit, whose mind never shifted from 4th gear, experienced more outright failure than triumphant success. But while some rock stars like Chuck Berry had organized their careers more in the guise of a businessman, Gordon would lead his business like a gifted rock star. He knew as much as anyone that he was a gambling man, and for him not to dream big was to live a life not worth living.
The film Rock'n'Roll reflects the desire for Gordon to be as close to the star persona as he could be. Rather than sit backstage, Gordon would include himself in the opening credits, practicing his art form of persuasion over the telephone as his own pseudo live performance.With his lofty dreams in full view, the cream of Australian Rock'n'Roll talent at his call, and the U.S pop idol 'Fabian' successfully coaxed over from the U.S, he would unfurl the only live feature film of a 1950s rock concert ever to be made, under the stewardship of director Lee Robinson.
Through the unwavering efforts of Australian researchers Don Hudson and Bob Hayden, we have at least a reasonable summation of the films immediate evolution after its premiere at the Newcastle Stadium Theatre on the 30th of October, 1959. This initial screening and the following showing at North Sydney's Orpheum Theatre on the 31st of October, featured the main act Fabian. However, when a rather irate Bob Marcucci (Fabian's manager) got word of his inclusion, he ordered Gordon to strip the film of any sign of the burgeoning teen idol, who would later carve out a very handy B grade film career.
Unfortunately for Marcucci, the second and only other copy of the film believed to have been made was already flying across The Tasman before he'd had time to slam the door behind him at Gordon's Rushcutters Bay headquarters. The NZ based Kerridge Organisation, paying a sizeable 3,000 pound punt on an Australian made film about of a bunch of kids losing themselves to a strange new music craze with an even stranger name, saw their investment split the proverbial goal posts. With Fabian still in the film, and a young NZ Elvis by the name of Johnny Devlin almost upstaging O'Keefe with his dazzling performance, Rock'n'Roll was an outright hit in New Zealand, where it premiered in Auckland December 10, then onto Hamilton, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin, Palmerston North (and probably others) to packed cinemas, eventually returning to the music blooded Christchurch for a one off encore screening on October 14, 1960.
Rumour has it that the NZ copy found its way back to the U.S under the armpit of Bob Marcucci, but a more realistic, less sexy scenario, is that it likely rested in film storage for some time, then eventually disposed of like so many precious local films before and after, because they'd seemingly had little value to anyone at the time.
Back in Australia, Gordon had supposedly lost interest in the Australian run, as he'd believed it had lost its international appeal with the Fabian cut. By the time the film had belatedly premiered in Melbourne at the Loco Cinestar Theatre in North Melbourne on January 11 the following year, it was already labouring. Devoid of a local Melbourne star and Fabians international appeal, Rock'n'Roll was met with a lukewarm reception. While O'Keefe's inclusion did turn a few heads, it had reached the end of the road by June of the same year, petering out in the suburban cinema circuit without fanfare.
While Rock'n'Roll did briefly appear again in 1968, slotted into a yawny January Sunday Matinee at the the Rowville Drive-In Wantirna, it crept back into the shadows of history never to be seen again.
And then things went from shadows to midnight blue in the late 1970s. While in the treasured possession of the director Lee Robinson, the original negatives would be lost forever in a miscommunication between Robinson and a waste removalist.
Like some fabled script, the years passed and the anxiety grew. Investigative leads and tip offs would invariably lead to dead ends, while Rock'n'Roll's cultural significance grew on a similar trajectory. This led to the rather poorly funded National Film and Sound Archive of Australia sending out a dimly lit search beacon in the 1990s. And by the 2020's, it stood as the most important lost film behind the almost biblical in stature silent film, 'The Story of the Kelly Gang', made in 1906.
This is the part of the story where the author and current owner of the film enters the arena. I am by no means a dedicated collector of film or music per se'. You will not find me digging in a vinyl crate at 5am or filling every spare metre of my home with nitrate film stock. But in saying that, my desire to find 'treasure' is worthy of a film in itself. I am no Lee Gordon, but I sense I have spent as many hours hunting on the road as he did in the air. When I read that Gordon had told a reporter shortly before his passing that he "must pull off the impossible, otherwise there doesn't seem much point to doing anything", it was clear that the motivation to make money was secondary to his motivation of finding the next big thing.
What I've learned on my own journey, is that whatever that 'big thing' may be, it will invariably render a life in colour. As I opened a rusty film can in the backstreets of Melbourne in 2020, it was there for me in black and white.
If you would like to know more about the recent developments of the film in detail, please refer to the sub-page located under 'Film History' in the menu, entitled 'ARRAS Magazine' (Australian Rock'n'Roll Appreciation Society). ARRAS have closely monitored and journaled these developments via their quarterly publication, 'The Big Beat of the '50s'.