Written by Fantasma el Rey
Mr. Rock ‘n Roll is the story of legendary 1950s DJ Alan Freed, who coined the term “rock ‘n’ roll” and brought the sound of the city to the masses. This 1999 made-for-television movie stars Judd Nelson as Mr. Rock ‘n’ Roll himself and features Madchen Amick as his loving wife. The film also boasts an appearance by Paula Abdul. Not to mention a classic rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack that covers many hits of the 1950s.
So with all that working for it this should be an interesting look at the life of a radio pioneer. Not so much. Mr. Rock ‘n Roll isn’t a completely bad glance at the life of Freed but 88 minutes isn’t enough time to cover the ground which was broken by him, to get past the surface of his story, or to go into depth with the artists and music that was so important to him.
The movie follows Freed from his start as a small-time Cleveland disc jockey where his coattail was pulled to the happenings of the rhythm and blues sound of the underground, so to speak. Having been bitten by the R&B bug, Freed fought to change his bland radio show to the more exciting, pulsing fresh sounds that young Afro Americans where forging in clubs, pubs, dancing halls, and inner-city juke joints. We see Freed meet the young front man of an R&B group, Jackie Wilson, who would go on to score major hits on his own. Freed attempts to promote live shows featuring Wilson and many other hot acts of the day.
As his popularity soars the big time calls and Freed is off to the Big Apple to further spread the R&B gospel, soon to be known nationwide as “rock ‘n’ roll,” which legend says is the name Freed gave to this dangerous, edgy music that all American white kids were beginning to now and love.
As the craze hits the nation, Freed comes under fire for his large shows and even larger “unruly” crowds of teenagers. So large and out of hand is this rock ‘n’ roll problem that J. Edgar Crossdresser and his gang get involved and begin the shut down of Freed, many other DJs, and record men. Thus beginning the dark period in the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll brought on by the scandal know as Payola, which found DJs taking money from record companies to push and play their music. And so goes the rise and fall of Alan Freed, Mr. Rock ‘n Roll. Oh, and his marriage suffers as his fame grows and he has an affair with Abdul's character.
So that’s “Mr. Rock ‘n Roll” Alan Freed’s life in a nutshell, wrapped in early, over-played rock hits. The cast does an alright job but it isn’t enough to make one take an active interest in them; again, not enough time to get to know people. Leon turns in a fine performance as Jackie Wilson and gets to recreate Jackie’s fancy footwork and boxing background in early live gigs.
For the casual fan or for those totally unfamiliar with Freed and the early days of rock, this one could be of interest, but for those of us schooled in the music of that time, we can see all the holes that show from start to finish. The songs selected and presented as background and key to Freed’s story are out of synch as far as timelines go. Songs from the late ‘50s are played in the early ‘50s, which is fine for mood in certain movies but for something like this, selection should represent time and place better. And sure we get to see the likes of Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, and too much Jerry Lee Lewis but what about the doo wop groups like the Moonglows that Freed dubbed after his own early radio show’s name, Moondog's Rock 'n' Roll Party. I guess the trade-off would be Frankie Lymon. I could go on and on about timelines and music, who played a bigger role in what, evolution of sounds, and why and how one group can’t be played before another, but that’s all snob stuff that takes pages and pages most don’t care about.
For the most part, this highly fictional account of the story of rock ‘n’ roll and Alan Freed is lacking overall. It’s no Walk The Line in its love story and no Cadillac Records in its tale of the founders of rock ‘n’ roll. Freed is presented as a slightly flawed saint but he had to be tough to deal with hardnosed businessmen and lords of the distribution rackets. Even though we do get to see him deal with some shady characters, there is no mention of his placing his name and receiving credit for composing songs he had nothing to do with. So with that can we believe he had absolutely nothing to do with the Payola mess and that his only sin was cheating on his wife? Maybe he wasn’t as bad as others in the business when it came to ripping off artists and by most accounts he treated the acts he promoted fairly well but sadly we only get the slightest glimpse of that in Mr. Rock ‘n Roll.
For those interested go check out American Hot Wax for another look at the life of Freed, its plays a bit better and was made years earlier.