Cultural twists


Produced and directed by Ron Mann
With Hank Ballard, Chubby Checker, Joey Dee, Mama Lu Parks and the Parkettes, Dee Dee Sharp
Shown at the Melbourne International Film Festival
Reviewed by Bronwen Beechey

Ron Mann's last film, Comic Book Confidential, profiled the history of the North American comic book and some of its best known creators. In Twist, he takes a high-energy, tongue-in-cheek look at another aspect of US popular culture.

The twist (for those readers born post-1960) was the craze that took the world by storm in the mid-'60s and changed the way a generation danced. It seems very tame these days — basically you stood apart from your partner, bent your knees and gyrated from side to side as if, in the immortal words of Chubby Checker, "you were drying your bottom with a towel while grinding out a cigarette". Yet in the repressive and paranoid atmosphere of Cold-War USA, the Twist was denounced as lewd, corrupting and possibly communist inspired.

Mann traces the development of the twist back to its origins in black music and culture. While white teenagers of the 1950s had ballroom dancing and bland, sentimental ballads, their black counterparts had energetic dances and raw, exciting rhythm and blues with suggestive, if not downright dirty, lyrics.

Once a few teenagers accidentally tuned in to black radio stations, it was no contest. Rock and roll was born to a chorus of disapproval from parents, teachers and church leaders — which only increased its attraction for white teenagers desperate for an alternative to suburban boredom.

The entertainment industry was quick to recognise that there was a buck to be made, and TV shows like American Bandstand sprang into existence. However, while the music and dance steps originated in the black ghettos, the faces on these shows were almost always white, and the dances and lyrics were cleaned up for mass consumption.

"The Twist" was originally recorded in 1959 by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters. It caught on among Baltimore teenage fans who began doing the twist on a local TV dance show. When the producer informed American Bandstand's producer and MC Dick Clark of the new dance, Clark refused to have anything to do with it, because of Ballard's reputation for "dirty" lyrics. (His previous hits included "Get It", "Sexy Ways" and the infamous "Work With Me Annie".)

In 1960 Chubby Checker recorded a "nicer" version of "The Twist". Dick Clark promoted the song heavily on Bandstand, helping it go to Number One. A year later the song was re-released, topping the charts again, and the Twist became a worldwide dance craze. It was followed by a succession of dances such as the frug, the monkey and the fly, each sillier than the one before. As popular music became more experimental, people abandoned the complicated steps for more individual freestyle dancing.

Twist makes some important points about the way the white music industry raided African American culture for new styles — a process that continues today with the attempts at coopting and commercialising rap music. But it is also a very funny and highly enjoyable experience which provides a trip down memory lane for those of us who can remember the twist (and maybe even did it), and some great music.