Eagle Rock Entertainment // 1999 // 87 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 22nd, 2009
The champion of rock n' roll.
Once upon a time, he was just an ordinary guy. Then he got his big break, and quickly rose to fame and fortune. Then a mistake was made, and the inevitable fall from grace began. The names and faces may change, but the story always seems to remain the same, doesn't it? We've seen it told in many music biopics over the years, and Mr. Rock N' Roll: The Alan Freed Story tells it once again in a particularly unimaginative fashion. It's not that this film is exceptionally bad...it's just that there is an overwhelming sensation of familiarity that prevents it from ever becoming anything special.
If you're not familiar with Freed, he was a radio deejay in the early 1950s. For a while, he played the sort of music that everyone else was playing. You know, Bing Crosby and the big bands. After a while, Freed began to notice that the predominantly African-American rhythm and blues music (then often referred to as "race music") was beginning to cross racial boundaries and catch on with a lot of white kids. Being both a lover of R&B and a man with an eye for successful business endeavors, he convinced his employers to allow him to host an R&B program on the predominantly white radio station. The move was controversial initially of course, but the program took off and Freed's popularity skyrocketed. During his few years of success, Freed introduced the American public to a lot of hot new music and more famously coined the term "rock n' roll." Alas, the success was crushed in the early 1960s when Freed was found guilty of participating in a payola scandal.
All of these events are depicted in somewhat tedious fashion in Mr. Rock N' Roll, and there isn't a single scene in the entire 87-minute running time that makes this story any more compelling than it would be if you simply read the Wikipedia article about Freed. The film was directed by Alan Wolk, a seasoned television director who manages to provide respectable period design and stellar pacing despite the clichéd nature of the script. The music heard throughout the film is predictably entertaining, as a variety of look-alikes lip-synch to classics tunes by Jackie Wilson, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and others. These elements keep the film from becoming too insufferable, but the meat and potatoes are simply too flavorless. A brief appearance by a Jerry Lee Lewis look-alike made me yearn for the reckless energy of Great Balls of Fire, a similarly conventional biopic that somehow succeeded through sheer force.
Judd Nelson (The Breakfast Club) essays the title character without much success. He overplays every step of Freed's journey. Freed was a controversial figure, but Nelson makes the odd decision to portray him in a rather saintly manner most of the time. He provides us with sanctimonious narration that treats viewers like children: "You have to remember, back in the 1950s, a lot of white people didn't think that it was appropriate to listen to music created by black people." Gee whiz, Alan Freed...what a startling revelation. Madchen Amick (Twin Peaks) doesn't have much to do as Freed's wife; she gets to smile during the first half-hour and scowl for the remainder of the film. A brief appearance by Paula Abdul (American Idol) is an unfortunate distraction. Finally, Leon (Get Rick of Die Tryin') seems unable to get under the skin of Jackie Wilson with his very dull performance.
I suppose there is a good story to be told here, but I'm beginning to feel like the time for conventional music biopics has come and gone. We've seen so many of them, they've all been so similar and it's just getting old. Even the superbly-executed ones like Cadillac Records and Talk to Me suffer from a weary familiarity, much less something as amateurish as Mr. Rock N' Roll: The Alan Freed Story. It's time for the genre to evolve (an argument persuasively made by the satirical Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Todd Hayne's sublime Bob Dylan study I'm Not There), and watching something as banal as this film only serves as a sharp reminder of that.
The full-frame transfer is somewhat disappointing for a variety of reasons. The image is quite soft and lacking in focus, scratches and flecks turn up with surprising frequency for a film made in 1999 and colors bleed from time to time. The 2.0 audio also struggles with some inconsistencies on occasion. You would expect a film so dominated by music to be a bit stronger in the audio department, but that isn't the case. The level between the dialogue and music seems to fluctuate constantly. I should also mention that the original score is incredibly dull in contrast to the period songs that surround it. There are no extras on the disc.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 87 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated