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‘Shout’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 04, 1991

Rock 'n' roll, pioneered by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and others, shook America at the roots. You wouldn't know that watching "Shout." Elevator music has more menace. And look who's talking in this 1950s subversive fable: John Travolta.

"It's called rock 'n' roll, boys," he tells a clutch of admiring teens. "It's going to burn through this country like a prairie fire."

The teenagers are orphans at the Benedict Boys Home in Texas, run by repressive Richard Jordan. Travolta, a hepcat on the lam, is the new band teacher. But he ain't doing Brahms. In this MTV-anesthetic drama, he turns them on to the devil's work -- right under Jordan's nose. He teaches them how to really use those instruments.

The kids are so hooked, they learn how to play rock 'n' roll instantly. Huddling around a radio, the fledgling rockers tune in to a latenight DJ called the Midnight Rider. They want to hear the cutting edge. They want to taste this revolution. A Robbie Robertson song comes on -- circa 1988. Nothing but classics, here.

The main story's about Benedict rebel James Walters. He's always in trouble. For fun, he likes to break out and ring the church bell until the police show up. When he bets his cronies he can score with Jordan's pretty daughter (Heather Graham), things change. He falls in love. At the same time, Travolta's influence rings through loud and clear.

"What is this rock 'n' roll music?" harrumphs camp commandant Jordan.

Director Jeffrey Hornaday, the choreographer for "Flashdance," follows in the footsteps of "Dirty Dancing" and "Footloose." He wants to make of this a quasi-musical. But "Shout" is too vapid even for that. The face-off between Travolta's boys and Jordan is merely a ducktailed version of the one between Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer in "The Sound of Music."

At night, Travolta sneaks out to a secret club, where authentic black musicians jam to the wee hours. He joins them onstage. He's that cool. Walters, who has quickly learned how to play guitar and harmonica, joins in too. Legendary stuff takes place.

"I don't know, man," Walters sputters afterward. "I've never felt like that. I've never played like that. It was amazing."

When Travolta gets it on with local gal Linda Fiorentino, his luck changes. Seems the sheriff is sweet on the lady too. The police (with Jordan's collusion) check on Travolta's past. (They don't uncover his real crimes, such as "Saturday Night Fever" and "Grease.") It's time to go on the lam again. It's also time for Walters to be the big guy. Part of this revolution thing is growing wise, facing the pain, dealing with things. Or something like that.

When the cops lead Travolta away, they're too late. The movie's already done its innocuous damage.

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