Saturday, July 11, 2009

BLAND BLAND BLAND. I try to focus on the good whenever I talk about movies here but there's just not that much to praise about MR. ROCK 'N' ROLL: THE ALAN FREED STORY. Apparently this was a 1999 made-for-TV movie; I was unaware of that fact when I first started watching it but it soon became abundantly clear to me. But here I was tuning in blissfully unaware. Here, I thought, is a biopic starring Judd Nelson as legendary 50's radio DJ Alan Freed: the guy who supposedly coined the term "rock and roll". The poop is that Nelson wanted very much to play the part since he was so into that classic 50's rock and roll music. So why is he so completely bland and almost preoccupied during most of the movie?!? Granted, Judd Nelson is not Spencer Tracy but I kinda like the guy and expected something more than basically a walk-through. I can't really be too harsh on Nelson, though, since he probably realized that he was starring in a mediocre property.
I'm tempted to write that the teleplay by Matt Dorff (based on the probably better John A. Jackson book "Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock & Roll") rushes through too many events; but the truth is that the film on encompasses a few years and there isn't THAT much ground to cover. So why does the film seem like the rushed Cliff's Notes version of the story?!? Director Andy Wolk (whose career seems to be solely in the realm of TV writing and directing) somehow manages to make the viewer feel like the movie is glancing over every single event depicted while, at the same time, scenes seem to drag on and overstay their welcome. The main problem, I think, is too much time is devoted to the "love story" angle between Judd Nelson's Alan Freed and his girlfriend/wife (played by TWIN PEAK's Madchen Amick). While Amick provides more of a performance than Nelson does, it's the screen time devoted to their romantic ups and downs that feels like wasted screen time (as well as feeling to THIS viewer probably made up out of whole cloth). This, of course, is a major weakness in the script. Surely there is more than enough eventful scenes to be gotten from the early history of rock and roll and the struggles Alan Freed had with radio stations, sponsers, communities, television, stage shows, censorship, juvenile delinquent riots and the payola scandal without wasting valuable screen time on a frankly lukewarm-written romantic angle. Sadly, the very moment Nelson meets Amick, the viewer can predict every single event that will occur in their relationship: the meet cute, Freed will "charm" her into marriage, she will feel neglected when Freed hits the big time and spends less time with her, they'll grow farther apart as she rots in her big house with the kiddies while Freed travels all over the country, eventually he will have an affair with a hoyden (Hi, Paula Abdul!) and she will leave him. Nothing new here so why devote SO MUCH screen time towards showing us what we've already seen 100 times before?
As far as the performances go, Judd Nelson does have one or two moments when he seems to wake up from his somnambulism to provide a little fire. However, the distressing thing is that there is absolutely NO attempt to make Nelson sounds even remotely like the real Alan Freed. The Moondogger himself had a rather gravelly voice while Nelson speaks in quite a high register. This, in itself, isn't too bad but Nelson demonstrates absolutely zero personality as a radio DJ; the radio voice he uses is no different from his everyday voice. Now, we all know how bombastic and animated classic radio DJs were; but here Nelson introduces these so-called explosive, dangerous new rock and roll records like he's reading the school closing notices on a snow day. I can only hazard a guess and say that maybe Nelson had become disappointed by the project, the script and the director, by the time the cameras rolled and was merely putting in his time. There is, however, no real excuse for that. No matter how silly or insipid the film, troopers like Peter Cushing, Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff still didn't walk through a part but gave it their all regardless. Madchen Amick as Freed's wife Jackie is rather better but one wonders what such a looker is doing with nebbishy Nelson. The aforementioned Paula Abdul appears as "the other woman" and her character serves no other purpose but to break up Freed's marriage; at least that's how it all plays out to this viewer. 50's teen idols Fabian and Bobby Rydell also have cameos. The famous musicians of the era are impersonated, of course, by other actors. The best of the lot is Leon portraying Mr. Excitement himself Jackie Wilson. Probably the only warmth in the film is the genuine friendship that can be felt between Leon and Judd Nelson in their scenes together. Particularly good is a scene in a restaurant where some rascist guys at the next table are grumbling loudly about Freed sitting at a table with a black man. This is one of the few instances where Judd Nelson wakes up long enough to confront the two bigots. Leon seems to make something of a mini-career portraying famous musicians; besides Jackie Wilson in this film, Leon has also portrayed Little Richard and David Ruffin of the Temptations. Other famous rock-n-rollers appear in smaller roles. Walter Franks as Little Richard and Joe W. Davis as Buddy Holly are pretty good in their micro-appearances in the film. James C. Victor as Jerry Lee Lewis is horrendously over the top; granted, The Killer was known for mugging at the camera but not THIS much! The portrayals of Bill Haley (Michael Daingerfield), Bo Diddley (Michael Dunston) and Frankie Lymon (LeRoy D. Brazile) are less successful. Alan Freed's career is backed by mob boss Morris Levy (David Gianopoulous) whose performance, shall we say, reminded me of the similar sleazy character in Pat Benatar's "Love Is A Battlefield" video -- in other words, slimy and cartoonish.
While there apparently was at least some attempt to evoke the era of the fifties, that attempt fails rather badly. People (including Madchen Amick) don't behave the way people did in the 50's; they act more like people from the 90's who are at a 50's-themed dance. Madchen Amick stops short at the Arsenio Hall "whoop whoop" propellor arm . . . but only just. The career of Alan Freed is well-deserving of a true major motion picture biopic but this isn't it. There have been one or two but they strangely were not very successful either. Maybe someday.

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