Toward the end of the 1950's, Fulci's passion for music led him to work with a young singer named Adriano Celentano. Both men were just beginning their long professional careers: Fulci had switched from medicine to movies when his girlfriend dumped him; while Celentano had recently won a competition for Jerry Lewis imitators, and was using his prize money to launch his musical career. That in itself sounds like the setup for a B-movie comedy... but there's more: Fulci — yes, that Fulci, our Fulci, the man who went on to direct some of the goriest horror movies ever made — co-wrote two of Celentano's biggest hits of his early career, 24,000 Baci and Il tuo bacio e come un rock. Both songs featured in I Ragazzi del Juke-Box, Fulci's second film as director and Celentano's movie debut.
I Ragazzi del Juke-Box did well enough to allow the aspiring director and the aspiring pop star to team up again the next year, with Urlatori alla sbarra (usually translated "The Howlers of the Dock", though this isn't quite correct).
Though Celentano would go on to become one of Italy's most popular entertainers, in 1960 he still wasn't a big enough star to carry the picture by himself. Instead, the film was a sort of a showcase for a handful of then-popular musicians... some on their way up, some on their way down. For his part, Celentano was on his way to the very top, and this film was an important early step in getting him there. When the film was re-released in later years, when Celentano had achieved major stardom as an actor as well as a singer, it became a "Celentano film" by default: it was renamed Metti, Celentano e Mina — the movie's romantic lead Joe Sentieri having faded somewhat from the limelight — and the hit song from I Ragazzi..., Il tuo bacio e come un rock, was added to the soundtrack over the main titles (at least I think it was added later; the version I saw was the re-release version, and Il tuo bacio... isn't listed as part of the original soundtrack).
Aside from Celentano, who plays "Adriano", the movie features American jazz trumpeter Chet Baker (as "Chet"), Italian pop singers Mina (as "Mina") and the afore-mentioned Joe Sentieri (as "Joe"), and, in her screen debut, Marilù Tolo (as — wait for it — "Marilù"). You'll have guessed from the names that the characters are intended to be believable (if idealized) sketches of how these energetic young people might actually live... although today, with our post-60's perspective, it seems a little hard to believe that this movie might represent a genuine snapshot of the early days of the European counterculture. Also appearing is a very young Elke Sommer, as "Giulia": this is a different role than the one she played in I Ragazzi..., although she'd played a Giulia there, too.
The "howlers" of the title are young rock and roll singers like Celentano, who were widely ridiculed for making mere "animal noises" instead of singing. The movie makes fun of this by beginning with a history of howling through the ages, from early man through the rise of Western civilization and up to the present. Most of these little episodes aren't very funny. But when we get to the present, the example suddenly becomes much more pointed: the "howler" we're shown is a member of the "National Congress for the Re-education of Youth" — ominous title, that — and his howls are directed against the "howlers", gli urlatori, that shameful plague that corrupts the nation's children. Something must be done to stop the spread of rock and roll, before it turns an entire generation into... gasp!... juvenile delinquents!
I think we've all heard that kind of howl before. It echoes from generation to generation without ever losing volume. It's particularly amusing to see it repeated in a film from 1960, just before youth movements all across the globe changed the cultural landscape forever, and rock and roll conquered the world.
Blissfully unaware that they are holding up a STOP sign to thwart a tsunami, the Powers That Be across Italy start implementing a new policy: they'll ban blue jeans. The theory is that denim is the gateway drug to rock music, and wild dancing, and delinquency, and all things American and dangerous. So Parma and Venice and other Italian municipalities begin "extirpating the blue-jeans mob", as one newspaper headline puts it.
Now, there's one segment of the adult population that doesn't find the ban very appealing: the Italian blue jeans industry. The board of the Blue Jeans Company holds an emergency meeting to try and figure out what to do about this catastrophe. The thing to do, they decide, is to start a campaign among Italy's young people, to get them to go into the streets — not to protest, but to change the image of the blue jeans-wearing rocker into something friendlier... something less threatening to the "normal" population.
In order to do this, they decide to enlist the help of a swingin' group of hipsters led by the popular singer Mina. This group is obsessed with all things American: there's one kid who dresses like Marlon Brando in The Wild One, and another who dresses like Davy Crockett; there's even a little shrine dedicated to Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong in the local hang-out... and, of course, everybody wants their blue jeans and rock and roll. When the distress call comes in, the group is in the middle of a jam; only Chet Baker, who is passed out fully-clothed in the bathtub, hears the phone ring. At first, he answers the faucet. When that doesn't work, he tosses a sodden sponge at Celentano, who is playing the guitar for Mina's band. Celentano goes to answer the real telephone... which is in the toilet.
It's Mina the executives want to talk to, though the jam has built up such momentum that another song starts up the moment she's stepped up to the phone. Mina has some difficulty hearing the news over the volume of the music, but once she does, she calls the jam to a halt and starts issuing orders. They're all going to have to go out and evangelize on behalf of blue jeans and rock and roll, to convince the Italian mainstream public that they're not all a bunch of depraved thugs. It may be difficult... it may force them to do some things they wouldn't do ordinarily... but after all, it's in the name of blue jeans and rock and roll! At which point, Celentano jumps up with his guitar and starts wailing a little number called "Blue Jeans Rock", the chorus of which is — naturally — "Blue jeans, blue jeans and rock and roll!" He does such a good job getting the crowd worked up for the job ahead that he's completely alone in the house by the time his number is finished.
As you might expect, the kids' attempts to soften their collective image doesn't go as smoothly as they'd hoped.
For instance, there's the little old lady that the Marlon Brando imitator attempts to help across the street. The woman has just read in the newspaper about attacks on old ladies by marauding teenagers, so when leather-clad Marlon stops to introduce himself, the old lady beats the crap out of him. An attractive girl has better luck helping an old man across the street, but wouldn't you know it? Halfway across, the old guy gets fresh.
But wait! The Davy Crockett imitator puts his ear to the ground — somewhere there's an elderly man complaining to his landlord that the elevator in his building is broken. At last! A chance to be helpful! Joe, the brains of the group, takes over: the whole group, whistling a jaunty little tune, swoops down on the surprised gentleman and carries him up the stairs. It isn't until they get to the top of the building that they discover the old man lives on the ground floor. Oops! So down they all go, still whistling a jaunty little tune. Except, that is, for the barely-conscious (but still cool) Chet Baker, who rides up and down on the broken elevator. The elevator wouldn't dare stay broken for Chet Baker.
But here's a bit of good news: the old man they've just carried all over the building turns out to be Senator Bucci, an influential politician. Bucci takes a liking to the kids, and invites them in to meet his grand-niece, Giulia Giommarelli (Elke Sommer). Giulia is waiting for her father, Professor Giommarelli, to come home... and waiting with her is a group of her father's young, nubile female students. It turns out Giulia and Mina know each other already, and the two greet each other as old friends. Joe, on the other hand, gets Giulia's hackles up. The other boys in the group pair off immediately with the Professor's students (and, miraculously, there are just enough girls for all the unattached boys... though Chet Baker falls asleep while kissing his girl's hand). But Joe and Giulia are left circling each other like wary opponents. You know the rules of movies like this: they'll be in each other's arms by the end.
First, though, it's time for Celentano to grab a balalaika from the Professor's collection and start rocking out, this time with a tune called "Ruskaja". Suddenly, with no explanation, the band members have their instruments again — including the drum kit and double bass, which clearly weren't there a minute ago — and another full-scale musical number begins. Even the wizened old Senator starts bopping to the beat, and it seems like everybody's having a great time...
Unfortunately, the music attracts the attention of the Professor's upstairs neighbor. A little public disturbance might be bad enough, considering the trouble the blue jeans crowd is in already... but this time, the trouble goes far deeper than that. The neighbor is none other than Gubellini, the Congressman who started the whole anti-youth crusade in the movie's prologue. Gubellini looks out his window just in time to see Joe and Giulia working out the whole love/hate thing on the dance floor/patio. This throws him into a jealous fit: Giulia was supposed to be his! In fact, Gubellini's infatuation with Giulia seems to be the reason he started his moral crusade in the first place: Giulia's father, Professor Giommarelli, is the director of a TV station in which the "T.V." stands for "Temperance and Virtue". What better way to ingratiate himself with his potential future father-in-law than with a cultural clean-up?
You can see where this is going: Senator Bucci is going to help the kids bring their music to TV through his son-in-law's television programs... provided they all can convince Professor Giommarelli that rock and roll isn't laden with moral turpitude. But the oily Gubellini is watching their every move, looking for ways to thwart them... legislatively, if necessary. It's Gubellini's attempts to condemn the young singers that gives the movie its title: "alla sbarra" ("at the bar") doesn't mean "of the dock"; it means, "in the dock"... that is, on trial. And in the meantime, Giommarelli has to contend with the fact that his straight-laced students have all fallen in love with the "howlers" (not just as fans, but literally)... and even worse, his daughter is falling for Joe, the leader of the pack. Can Bucci and the kids get the Professor to lighten up? Will Joe get the Professor's blessing to marry Giulia? And even if Giommarelli changes his mind, will the public change theirs... given the non-stop barrage of anti-youth propaganda coming from the Congress for Re-Education?
Well... maybe; but it's the audience the film spends most of its time convincing. The plot takes a secondary role to all sorts of energetic musical vignettes. For instance, there's a big number that takes place entirely on Vespas... and another one in which the boys pretend to be shepherds. A tranquil interlude in the woods leads to nothing more risqé than some hand-holding and casual smooching; but it does provide the opportunity for Chet Baker to recover from his drug and/or alcohol-induced stupor in time for a solo, both as a singer and trumpeter. And of course, there's the moment when Celentano e gli altri decide to take their case directly to the people, turning a public square into an impromptu dance floor for the impassioned song "Mai più": "Never Again" (aka "Impazzivo per te"). You might think, from the title and the situation, that this would be some sort of protest song, but you'd be wrong: "Never Again" refers to love gone bad. There is no hint of rock and roll as a genuine force for social protest in Urlatori alla sbarra. The only cause the urlatori are trying to advance with their music is that of rock and roll itself.
Obviously, this movie doesn't pretend to be a serious statement on generations in conflict. It's the sort of movie in which the kids are all basically good-hearted naïfs, and the adults — including the grumpy ones — only need a little encouragement before they too surrender to the backbeat. Even Chet Baker's drug addiction, which would go on to ruin his life and his career, is played for laughs. There's never any serious doubt that the harmless urlatori will win in the end, just as there's no real suggestion that they're going to suffer very much if they lose. The kids are all charming cartoon characters, and their adversary Gubellini isn't given enough to do to emerge as a clear-cut villain.
In spite of its full-throated endorsement of "modern" blue jeans culture, Urlatori alla sbarra looks backwards, toward the old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney-"Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" tradition, rather than forward to the subversive rock and roll movies that came later in the decade. There's an innocence about its tone that would disappear from movies about the nascent youth culture as the sixties wore on — once people began to realize that the growing rebellion was more than simply kids being kids. Regardless of whether the kids were really fighting for peace and justice, or merely rioting in the streets (and they did both); regardless of whether the adults agreed with the young people or loathed everything they stood for (and they did both); the young people of the sixties became a force to be reckoned with, and needed to be taken seriously... much more seriously than the young people take themselves in this movie.
The innocence would disappear from Fulci's films, too. It's hard to believe that the director of this slight musical comedy would go on to make the stingingly anti-clerical Beatrice Cenci, or the "Artaudian" western Massacre Time, before the decade was out. Even Fulci's later comedies, such as the bitter political satire All'onorevole piacciono le donne... / The Eroticist, seem to have very little in common with this exuberant early work.
Both Fulci and Celentano proved with their later careers that they were much more complicated creative personalities than this movie makes them out to be. Even so, Urlatori... is still held in sufficiently high regard in Italy that it was one of three films (along with two early thrillers, Una sull'altra and Sette note in nero) chosen for a retrospective after Fulci's death in March, 1996. Although it may be atypical, and even vacuous, Urlatori alla sbarra is nevertheless an appealing, well-made film. As for the songs? Certainly they're no longer controversial (that's putting it mildly), but even they have aged fairly well.
To me, one of the most interesting things about Urlatori... is its initial setup. Look past the musical numbers, look past the tepid romance, and what you have is a story of how Big Business (in the form of the Blue Jeans Company) comes to realize that the emerging counterculture is a market they need to exploit. Much of the rest of the film deal with the way that pop singers and television programmers go out of their way (for a variety of reasons) to give the business interests exactly what they want: a non-threatening, sanitized, consumer-friendly version of the genuine rebellion. And in fact, this is what happened to a large chunk of the counterculture of the sixties... that portion which paid lip-service to the "revolutionary" ideals of peace, love and justice, but who were really more intent on buying "some feathers and bells, and a book of Indian lore" (as Frank Zappa put it in 1968)... that portion that went from the teens of the Summer of Love to the yuppified thirtysomethings of the greed-fueled 1980's. And in that respect, Fulci's film hasn't aged a bit, since corporations still use the language of the counterculture to sell us stuff we don't need. So perhaps there is just a slight hint of the later, thoroughly subversive Fulci lingering beneath the surface of the film — just enough to appeal to those of us who grind our teeth as a TV advertisement tells us to express our individuality by buying a car... or as an Iggy Pop song is used to hawk that ultimate bourgeouis luxury, the Caribbean cruise.
(For more on Urlatore alla sbarra, check out Kimberly Lindbergs' Fulci retrospective, which includes some clips.)