While many of the concert movies that followed in the wake of Woodstock (1970) spotlighted then-contemporary artists, Let the Good Times Roll took a different route by tapping into a vogue for ’50s nostalgia. The filmmakers shot color footage of oldies concerts in three locations, and then spliced the performances together to create the illusion of a single all-star show; additionally, the filmmakers created montages of ’50s signifiers by using stills and stock footage, and the montages play over selected songs. The movie is best when it keeps things simple, because dated tricks like prism filters and split screens make certain performance sequences feel gimmicky. Worse, the montages are aimless. For every smart juxtaposition (footage of Elvis Presley’s U.S. Army induction appears while the Shirelles perform “Soldier Boy”), there are a dozen instances of random imagery (the A-Bomb, The Mickey Mouse Show, etc.) needlessly distracting from onstage entertainment.
The picture also suffers, through no real fault of the filmmakers, from wildly inconsistent musicality. Groups including the Coasters and the Five Satins deliver dull recitations of old-fashioned ballads, complete with tacky choreography and unconvincing declarations of love for the audience. Total Vegas cheese. Other performers, including Fats Domino and Bill Haley and the Comets, seem frozen in time, essentially replicating their younger selves in robotic fashion. But three particular performers sizzle, and their work makes the picture worth watching for serious music fans.
Bo Diddley offers up a long, sloppy set filled with squawking guitar figures and vivid stage moves; he represents the bridge joining the blues to rock. Chuck Berry slays in his uniquely cynical fashion. Still in amazing shape physically and vocally, Berry struts and sways and sweats through a powerhouse set punctuated by the filthy verses of “Reelin’ and Rockin’,” his audaciousness undiminished. It’s also a treat to watch Berry and Diddley duet, especially when they perform a sort of duck-walking duel across the stage.
Yet the undeniable center of Let the Good Times Roll is Little Richard, who comes off as well and truly insane during his mesmerizingly weird appearance. Powerfully built but slathered with makeup, he’s a sexually ambiguous figure from the time he engages in preposterous diva antics backstage to the time he tears up the joint with a wild run of showboating stagecraft and wicked warbling. At one point, Richard climbs onto a stack of speakers and strips to the waist, tearing his shirt and throwing shreds into the audience—all while displaying a crazed gleam in his eye, as if goading an audience drives him to ecstasy. What this riveting material has to do with the squeaky-clean filler that comprises most of Let the Good Times Roll, however, is anyone’s guess.
Let the Good Times Roll: FUNKY