Mr. Blah 'n Bland. Eagle Media has released Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story, the NBC telemovie from 1999 that starred Judd Nelson as Freed, the Cleveland and New York radio DJ who was instrumental in introducing and developing rock 'n roll as a viable mainstream musical genre. Co-starring a chilly Madchen Amick and a silly Paula Abdul, Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story plays like a "serious" episode from that first filmed season of Happy Days...only it's much longer and not quite as entertaining.
According to Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story (and not, I would assume, the actual biographical facts of the man's life), Cleveland radio DJ Alan Freed (Judd Nelson), happened to discover the transformative effect of rhythm and blues "race" music during a private dance he was DJing when a teenager, unbeknownst to Freed, slipped a 45rpm on his player and pandemonium ensued: the kids started dancing, and the parents started hurling racial epitaphs. Freed, tired of playing Bing Crosby on his staid, boring program, goes right to the source of this newly-discovered music that gets white and black kids together: Leo Mintz's (Mark Wilson) record shop. Mintz tells Freed that rhythm and blues is the next big thing, and that he's going to sponsor an hour-long music program on a rival station. Freed convinces him to go with Freed's station, and together, Freed and Mintz win over Freed's boss, Pete Bell (Fulvio Cecere), to give it a try. Almost overnight, Freed's show is a smash, and he's ready to promote the first rock concert in the country.
But the demands of rock 'n roll prove disastrous for his personal life. Having met and won the pretty dance instructor, Jackie McCoy (Mädchen Amick), Freed's commitment to bringing the country's races together through rock 'n roll - through constant touring, endless hours in the TV and radio studios, and even traveling out to Hollywood to make films - leaves little time for his second family (Freed was previously married with children). A horrific car crash alerts the heavy-drinking Freed to the precariousness of his health - a fact that spurs the hard-driving DJ on to even more frenetic activity. Hoping to placate his wife, Freed asks for a personal loan from his shady business partner/mobster Morris Levy (David Gianopoulos) for a down payment on a home, but this move will ultimately prove disastrous for Freed when the "payola" scandals begin to rock the industry ("payola" was the then-legal practice of record companies and promoters paying DJs to play their records on the air), giving those businessmen now riding the crest of the rock 'n roll wave that Freed largely started, a chance to jettison the troubled DJ.
Films like Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story are absolutely the worst kinds of movies to write about because there's almost nothing there on which to hang a review. In this case, since Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story is a biopic, you can tread water easiest by discussing the veracity of the film's claims versus the historical facts known about the subject. Was Freed the man the same man in this film? What did the screenwriter leave out? What did the filmmakers embellish? Or invent outright? It doesn't make for a very interesting read, but then, Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story isn't a very interesting film. Straight off - I'm no expert either on Alan Freed or on this period of music history, but from what I've read, as well as other films I've seen (the much better film about Freed, American Hot Wax, from 1978, with the late, great Tim McIntire), including those starring Freed himself, Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story captures precious little of the either the man or the time period.
The number one problem with Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story, regardless of either its historical accuracy or its dramatic worth, is its airless, perfunctory atmosphere and execution. Christ, this film is supposed to capture an absolutely seething, tumultuous moment in American music and pop culture, when American teens threw off the shackles of the music they inherited from their parents, and in the process, forged the first tentative bonds between the races that encompassed not only artistic endeavors, but also social interaction - an unheard of proposition in segregated America at that time. And how do screenwriter Matt Dorf and director Andy Wolk showcase this momentous phenomenon? By having hangdog Judd Nelson (alternating his performance somewhere between somnambulant inertia and that pleasant feeling you have just after your nap) deliver a Disney-esque narration that glosses over huge stretches of time and facts, while cardboard racists talk about "jungle music," Freed's wife pouts continually, and actors lip-synch badly to rock oldies. The most interesting aspects of Freed's life are left by the wayside. Where's a look at how Freed truly discovered R & B? Or how he meticulously worked his way up the ladder of success, pushing rock 'n roll ahead as a steamroller of change...and as a vehicle of personal ambition (the film makes his career rise look ridiculously easy)? Where's Freed's substance abuse problems? A doctor tells Freed that he only has ten years left to live because of his hard living ways, but that's the first we've heard or seen of a Freed that acted that way (up to that point, Nelson's Freed would have been at home on Leave It To Beaver). And most importantly, where's the "tragedy" in this Greek tragedy? Where's the even superficial look at Freed's business practices that embroiled him in the payola scandals? None of this is even touched on in the thin, watery Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story.
Even if you have never heard of Freed or his story, you'll be two scenes ahead of Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story because its biopic structure is so rote and rigid. This is paint-by-numbers history, made even less palatable by its totally unimaginative staging (how Wolk could make rock concerts boring, I don't know...but he does) and its enervated performances. I've never been a big fan of basset hound Nelson's (although his strangely blank personality fit well with another TV movie he attempted, The Billionaire Boys Club), and his turn here is typical of the kind of performances that took him from the heights of phony over-hyped "Brat Pack" nonsense, to relative obscurity in anonymous TV pap like this. Amick has always had a cool, reserved look in her eye that contrasted nicely with her lush sensuality, but to what purpose is she used here? I'm sure the real first two Mrs. Freed's had complex issues with their alcoholic husband, but Amick is portrayed as some kind of nagging killjoy counterweight to her husband's ambitions - an oversimplification, I suspect, of the historic facts, as well as a fairly clichéd dramatic convention. But then again, that's what Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story excels in: clichéd conventions. So, with a script that not so much doesn't stick to the facts but ignores them, a lead actor who seems temperamentally better suited to The Lawrence Welk Story, and direction that's right out of daytime serials (declarative sentence, over-the-shoulder reaction shot, pained look of emotional acknowledgement, close-up and..."cue the dog food commercial!"), Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story doesn't shake, rattle and roll...it just lays there and dies.
The full-screen, 1.33:1 video transfer for Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story looked quite dishy, with minimal grain and solid, saturated color. Compression issues weren't a factor, and the image was sharpish. Nice.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo audio track was nicely modulated, with an agreeably loud level, but I would imagine anyone really into this kind of music would want to hear it in 5.1. No subtitles or close-captions were available.
There are no extras for Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story.
Drab, airless, and a good deal fictitious, to boot. A total lack of energy marks this telepic of iconic DJ Alan Freed as a "miss," with poor performances and lackluster direction making this TV biopic a leaden affair. A real time-waster. You can safely skip Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.