Mickey Rooney is an electrifying dynamo in this foot-tapping, often astonishing musical which helps cement for me why the pre-war period was the absolute creative peak of Hollywood. This Rooney/Garland vehicle, the second of many musical pairings charts the journey of the young teenage pair to make something of their fledgling big band. The magic of the Busby Berkeley choreography matched with Rooney’s electrifying performance, as singer/dancer/actor /musician and Judy Garland’s youthful energy gives this film a pulse rarely seen in movies today.
Strike Up the Band (1940) dir. Busby Berkeley
Starring: Mickey Rooney, Judy Garland
By Alan Bacchus
The story here is uncomplicated, in fact, now a cinematic cliché to some. “Let’s put on a show!” is the inspiration of Jimmy Connors (Rooney) a high school dreamer who desires to form a big band of his own and become a success. His muse is Mary Holden (Garland), his best pal with a golden voice. While Jimmy and Mary beg the teachers, the principal and local businessmen around town to give him a shot, Jimmy is oblivious to Mary’s devoted attraction to him. It’s a superficial treatment of a love story, but when chewed up by Rooney’s supremely engaging presence as a comedic actor it’s comic gold.
Strike Up the Band was one of four Rooney/Garland musicals directed by Busby Berkeley – the legendary choreographer/director known for his dizzyingly geometric staging. Band showcases Berkeley at his best - essentially a film comprised of a series of immaculately staged musical sequences filled in by the ‘put on a show’ and romantic chase plotting. The first sequence, La Conga, is a marvel, a whirling dervish of a sequence which begins quietly with a single accordion then gradually gains momentum through the rhythmic intensity of a full percussive orchestra. There’s almost no dancing in the sequence until Garland stops singing and joins a gymnasium of teenagers in a series of chorus lines shimmying to the conga shuffle.
The second major set piece is Mickey Rooney’s crowning achievement, ‘The Drummer Boy sequence’ a big band musical piece led by Rooney himself on the skins pounding away at the drums with energetic flare. Again, there’s almost no dancing or geometric choreography, but Berkeley’s camerawork and sharp editing (from Ben Lewis) matches the energy of Rooney’s performance. As a fan of Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash I can’t help but an influence in the crafting of this sequence.
The third major sequence is the raucous finale, Rooney’s grand swan song performance after winning the Chicago Big Bang competition. This time Rooney, like his drumming, takes an energetic, if not lovably sloppy, turn as conductor of the band. Rooney foppish hair flying, arms waving with glee and his energetic smile is infectious and inspiring. Berkeley combines all the talents of all the performers and segments the sequence with elements of the Conga sequence, the Drummer Boy sequence and Berkeley’s trademark flare with group choreography. It sends the picture out with a bang like only old Hollywood could.
Strike Up the Band exemplifies the pre-war peak of Hollywood, a dream making machine firing on all cylinders, achieving a rare kind of cinematic perfection.