When the Five Satins take the stage in Let the Good Times Roll, the 1973 concert film directed by Robert Abel and Sidney Levin, they crow towards the end of “In the Still of the Night” that “This is just like 1956!” It wasn’t, and they knew it—these were already the oldies—but the compelling, occasionally explosive performances at this touring revivalist revue have an energy that can’t be chalked up to nostalgia alone. With appearances by Bill Haley and the Comets, the Shirelles, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard, Let the Good Times Roll shows that some of these supposed dinosaurs were still roaming the land hungry as ever.
Riding an opening montage that fast-forwards the audience through the politics and fashion of the ’50s and ’60s, the doc intersperses black-and-white footage and old commentary with contemporary performances. In the scratchy newsreels, rock & roll is described by old white men as a font of amoral evil, representing lust, excess, and other great-sounding stuff. When they cut from an anti-rock preacher denouncing “the beat” to a sweaty, strong-voiced Chuck Berry singing “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll,” it’s hard to imagine why anyone would choose anyone but Chuck.
Offstage, Fats Domino reads the Bible and Bo Diddley gets groceries with his band. Later, Diddley sings “I’m A Man” in incandescent form. Split-screen effects are used both to expand and distort: If one Chubby Checker isn’t enough, six doing the Twist ought to do it. The split screen also means you get to appreciate the audience’s reactions in parallel, never better than during Little Richard’s meteoric set. Little Richard wears a megawatt smile and a crown that says “The King.” And, most importantly, Richard’s beehive is the highest in an audience featuring plenty of competition.
“Lucille” only starts after some wrangling over the positioning of the piano that brings Richard’s more imperious emotions to the fore, but then he’s off, grimacing and grinning and unleashing that gunpowder squall. His blue outfit is covered in rhinestones, but it doesn’t make it through the performance in one piece. He jumps on top of the speaker stack and tears it off, throwing pieces to the crowd to be further slashed and torn. Towards the end, police officers seem as overcome as the audience, as Richard jumps into the crowd and disappears in the pandemonium.