by Stephen Vagg

There’s a melancholic romance around a lost film – the missing final two reels of The Magnificent Ambersons, for instance, or Jerry Lewis’ concentration camp opus The Day the Clown Cried. The Australian industry has its equivalents, such as the early television dramas that were cruelly wiped and almost our entire silent oeuvre, including such probable classics such as Ginger Mick and Fisher’s Ghost.

For many years, one of the most famous lost Australian movies was Rock’n’Roll, a concert film shot at Sydney Stadium in October 1959, featuring several key local artists. It was financed by promoter Lee Gordon, a legendary American figure crucial to the history of Oz entertainment in the 1950s, and directed by Lee Robinson, our leading filmmaker of that decade (King of the Coral Sea, Walk into Paradise, Skippy).

Rock’n’Roll was shot over four different concerts on the 16 and 17 October (they worked rock stars harder back in the day). The headline act was Fabian, that American instant asphalt Elvis, to quote one writer, probably best remembered now for his movie work (he’s name checked in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood) but a genuine pop force at the time: indeed, his appearance in Hobert sparked fights between pro-Fabian and anti-Fabian youngsters (not making that up, it’s in the paper). The support acts were all locals – we’re including Kiwis as locals – like Col Joye, Johnny Rebb, Johnny Devlin, The Delltones, The Crescents, The Graduates, Warren Williams and Lonnie Lee.

Lee Robinson told Graham Shirley in an oral history for the NFSA that Rock’n’Roll “was shot with seven 35mm cameras, without any monitors, and it was synchronously recorded on one tape recorder to every one of the seven cameras.”

Robinson said that “every cameraman in Sydney shot on the picture”, including John Lake, Keith Loon, Bill Grimmond, Bob Wright and Ron Horner. We interviewed Lee Robinson back in 2000 and he told us that he was not allowed to use American star Fabian in the film as “his people asked for a fortune”. As a result, footage of Johnny O’Keefe from another concert at the Sydney Stadium was inserted in Rock’n’Roll. This does have the effect of making Rock’n’Roll a true Anzac rock movie – no foreigners here! (Apparently, Fabian was still kept in the New Zealand release of Rock’n’Roll, which was a bit sneaky. The filmmakers probably thought they wouldn’t get busted.)

You’d think there would be a healthy market for an Aussie rock’n’roll concert movie among teens at the time, especially those in the outer suburbs and the country. And there might have been – but audiences never really got the chance to see it.

According to Robinson, this was due to the intransigence of Lee Gordon. The standard arrangement, then and now, for feature films was to do a deal with a distributor, who would take a percentage of box office takings in return for putting the movie in theatres. However, Gordon disliked working this way. “He was used to going and hiring the place and putting the set on and taking everything,” said Robinson. “He wouldn’t conform to this distribution arrangement at all. Wouldn’t even listen to it.”

Alright, well, that’s not an impossible obstacle to overcome – you can always “four wall” a movie, hire the cinema yourself and take all the proceeds. That’s a method occasionally used by filmmakers, and can be quite successful, as shown by movies like The Naked Bunyip. According to Robinson, Gordon did try this in one or two cinemas but was unhappy with his returns, although Robinson said they were higher than normal. Robinson says this meant Rock’n’Roll “never had any distribution at all. He [Gordon] wouldn’t let it go. He would not let the distributor have it under normal terms.”

There may have been other reasons. According to newspaper reports, singer Johnny Devlin got an injunction to stop the film being screened for a time on the grounds that it was defamatory towards him – which is weird because Devlin comes across extremely well in the movie. But Lee Gordon didn’t always rub people up the right way. He made and lost several fortunes, battled drug addiction, and died in London in 1963, aged only 40 years old.

Anyway, a thorough history of Rock’n’Roll was published in Arras magazine. But basically, the film only had a few sporadic screenings throughout Australia, then it vanished.

There were two negatives of the film. One was held by Lee Robinson, the other was sent to New Zealand. Robinson told us that the Australian copy was stored in the offices of Fauna Productions, his production company; when Robinson was away, someone cleaned out the studios, and put the print and negative in the tip. Robinson did have a little bit of surviving negative which proved lucrative – he told us that he got four to five thousand dollars every time it was used. The clip on the opening credits of Rage – the girl screaming, Johnny O’Keefe swinging his hand around – that’s from Rock’n’Roll. He had no idea where the New Zealand copy was. Nor did anyone else, it seemed. So, the movie became regarded as a lost film.

Mark laria, who is behind the re-release of Rock’n’Roll, told us that “with no evidence of any distribution arrangements between any distributors, Rock’n’Roll’s whereabouts couldn’t be traced. In a sense, the only way of it being discovered was when [if] the owner decided to come out of the shadows. And after the director lost the film’s negatives, it became akin to a myth rather than a reality. Most truly believed it was lost forever. “

Then, only a few years ago, a copy of Rock’n’Roll was discovered by laria. He recalls, “it appeared on the nature strip of a yard sale in 2020, and from the owner’s accounts, one day away from a journey to the local tip. I was out on my usual Sunday rounds, collecting items for my store and my own collections. 12 hours later, I was holding a feature film. This doesn’t happen every day. My dopamine system is geared toward discovery. I never seek to find anything that specific. As long as it’s treasure, I’m happy. I would call it a vinyl addiction gone universal.”

laria was responsible for the restoration and re-release of Rock’n’Roll – he describes himself as “the legal assistant, the restorer, the publicist and the PR manger” for the film, adding, “above all, I have a big responsibility to historians, fans and the general public. I’ve always looked at it like a kite. I want to get to that easy part where you stabilise it in the air for everyone to see, then hand the string to someone else while I have a break. The last 3 years has been a big sacrifice, but worthwhile.

“It was a difficult process just to get transferred digitally from 35mm film,” says laria. “The technician used a Blackmagic cintel scanner. From there, I worked up to plunging about $7000 on a Mac Studio with Da Vinci. I taught myself the program, with much trial and error. Luckily, I had experience using Logic Pro to address all the sound issues. There was a lot of hum, clicking, staining, warping and the like. All in all, it took me about 6 months. It’s a beautiful film to work with though. I grew close to many in the film.”

Rock’n’Roll is currently being screened throughout the country. We saw a session at New Farm Cinemas in Brisbane and had a great time. The fact that it was shot on 35mm film, meant that it has aged very well and it is a fascinating glimpse of a time now passed – the Sydney Stadium, with its revolving stage, the singers wearing suits (so formal!), the audience of boomer teens, a surprisingly large number of wearing Dame Edna Everage glasses. The cinema had a healthy amount of boomers in the audience, which added to the enjoyment – they would excitedly whisper to each other during the film going “I remember that singer”, and sing along to some of the tunes. We don’t know a lot about the artists from that particular era but it’s not hard to see who has X factor and who doesn’t. For instance, pretty much everyone is more conventionally handsome than Johnny O’Keefe, but no one touches him for charisma – he’s electric. Col Joye and Johnny Devlin are very good too. Lee Gordon is briefly seen at the beginning of the film talking on the phone, and there’s some brilliant glimpses of the crowd – teenage girls losing themselves to the music, others grabbing at the artists as they run to the stage, some bored adults sitting in really good seats that should have gone to someone who would have appreciated them more, an old duffer presumably there to babysit who falls asleep, etc.

“The cinema release will roll out like the classic roadshow of yesteryear,” says laria. “I think if Lee Gordon were still alive, he still wouldn’t sell it to a distributor in Australia. I am literally doing now what he did 60 years ago. There’s a strange symmetry there. But I think that it’s a really good thing for people to get off their couch and go and see it at the theatre, like they did back then. People are getting a lot out of physically going to see it. There is so much to reminisce about, and why not do it in the company of 100 others who journey with you?

“I want this film to be placed alongside those history segments in schools like Ned Kelly, the Eureka Stockade, the Gold Rush. Like these, it exists as a watershed moment in Australian politics and culture. Rock’n’Roll defined Australia more than we care to acknowledge.

Rock’n’Roll is a beacon for all historians and a monument for the early fans. Without this live concert footage from the 1950s, it is hard to fully convey what it meant to follow and experience the genre back then. Rock’n’Roll is a time capsule in every sense of the word. I’ve heard through the grapevine that Col Joye described the film as ‘liquid gold’. I tend to agree, it’s as scarce as that. I believe we finally have a bonafide conduit between those who were there and those who weren’t.”

laria says that his favourite part of the film has been “the capturing of audience members. The performances are so charismatic, but my treasure seeking persuasions lead me to delight in things I’ve never seen before from ‘50s teenagers in all their raw teenage rebelliousness, inside what we all thought was quite a starchy Australia prior to the ‘60s. “

When asked for his favourite memory of Rock’n’Roll, laria said “tt’s the purpose it has given me and the joy it brings to people. To define history in some small way is also very rewarding and a privilege. Special mentions must go to [film historians] Don Hudson and Bob Hayden who have flown the flag for this film for many years. Their knowledge of the film is hard earned and must be recognised. They kept the film relevant for many years while it was lost.”

Rock’n’Roll is screening throughout Australia

The author would like to thank Mark laria and Graham Shirley for their assistance with this article. Unless otherwise specified, all opinions are those of the author.