Sunday, November 27, 2011

American Hot Wax (1978)

          Someone could make a great movie from the story of Alan Freed, the celebrated 1950s disc jockey who coined the term “rock and roll” and became a music-industry superpower before getting snared in a payola scandal. And, indeed, director Floyd Mutrux comes awfully close with his lively comedy American Hot Wax. Exploding with atmosphere, energy, and great music, American Hot Wax offers a romanticized snapshot of what Freed’s life was like while he was on top of the world, defying authorities by staging giant shows featuring what was still called “race music”; in Mutrux’s rose-colored vision, Freed is the pied piper of the youth movement, bringing black and white kids together through their shared love of tunes by wild men like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.
          American Hot Wax is structured around the build-up to a major concert in New York, so Mutrux follows Freed (Tim McIntire) and his cronies as they cut records, form bands, score pay-for-play deals, and generally enjoy what later came to be known as the sex-drugs-and-rock-and-roll lifestyle. When American Hot Wax really connects, it creates a believable illusion that Freed is the center of the pop-culture universe, supervising recording sessions or working alone in his radio-station booth, drinking and chain-smoking while he lays down patter between the platters.
          McIntire, so vivacious in Mutrux’s Aloha Bobby and Rose (1975), is supercharged throughout American Hot Wax. In fact, the rest of the cast merely peeks out occasionally from behind McIntire’s shadow, but it’s interesting to see a trio of famous comedians early in their careers: Fran Drescher plays Freed’s assistant, Jay Leno plays Freed’s driver, and original Saturday Night Live star Laraine Newman plays a wannabe songwriter sorta-modeled on Carole King. (Several real-life music pros play bit parts, including then-Rolling Stone correspondent Cameron Crowe and record producers Bob Ezrin and Richard Perry.)
          The characterization and plotting could be better, since Mutrux seems more interested in generating a cool vibe, but the movie does an decent job of building tension by demonstrating how badly law-and-order types wanted to knock Freed off his pedestal. Better still, the storyline about Newman’s character joining forces with a black vocal group illustrates that Freed’s enthusiasm emboldened legions of kids to pursue rock-and-roll dreams. The movie’s climax, during which Berry and Lewis play themselves, is filled with hot music but dodgy dramaturgy—for instance, the portrayal of Berry as a self-sacrificing mensch clashes with his real-life reputation as a cold-blooded businessman. Nonetheless, American Hot Wax is more than the sum of its parts. Even though the movie doesn’t have much depth, it features so many great scenes that it’s well worth watching, especially for hardcore music fans.

American Hot Wax: GROOVY

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