Live by Night
The key question behind Live by Night isn’t so much “Why did they bother?” as “What went wrong?”
Presley should be classified as one of the great translators of our century. He created nothing (one does not create charisma, one possesses it) but he was able to find in the energy of black rhythm and blues an anarchic force that promised freedom, joy, liberating self-expression, all wrapped in the musky promise of sexuality. And he was able to bring that force to white audiences with such ferocious lack of inhibition that, in the week after his first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, a great section of the nation (particularly that segment between the sixth and 12th grades) spoke of little else.
Sullivan, who had hired his prize from the Dorsey brothers but wag still a little uncertain what he had unleashed, pledged publicly that the camera would not stray below the Presley belt on Elvis’ future appearances. But the fabled swivel hips were not to blame; it was the music.
That same music (the hard rock sound of, say, 1955 to about 1961, when the Beach Boys and the folk-music boom began to soften things, and psychedelic rock was in the inconceivable future) has not lost any force with the passage of time. One doesn’t feel nostalgic on hearing Buddy Holly sing “Peggy Sue,” because the music doesn’t seem to belong to some summer 13 years old; it exists in the moment, as it did then, and only we have grown older.
“Let the Good Times Roll” is a movie that seems inspired by some of these thoughts. It was filmed on location at a series of Rock and Roll Revival concerts, and gives us mostly the music of the late 1950s as performed 15 years later by the same artists. But it doesn’t condescend. It isn’t a movie that finds anything camp about Chuck Berry singing “Johnny B. Goode.” It understands that if the song and the singer were good then, they are both still good. But if Chuck Berry is still one of the great concert dynamos, the movie is merciless on lesser presences. Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” was a revolutionary event in the middle 1950s, but Bill Haley in 1973 now sings it as if he were one of those clever robots the Disney organization builds to impersonate Abraham Lincoln. There’s no spark anymore; Haley and his Comets, having done the song by now perhaps 20,000 times, have been done in by it.
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