"American Hot Wax" sustains a few minutes of raucous comic congestion in which disc jockey Alan Freed, a pioneering promoter of rock 'n' roll, appears to be located at the eye of a pop culture hurricane. Surrounded by a staff clamoring for decisions and aspiring acts clamoring for auditions, Freed carries a carnival atmosphere with him from street to studio and back again.
This uproarious atmosphere is wonderful as far as it goes, and recalling the comedies of Preston Sturges, it might have been important to a film conceived and executed satirically. The woeful thing about "American Hot Wax" is that it's meant to be an ear-splitting ceremony of canonization, with Freed ascending to pop culture sainthood, an alleged victim of all the forces of conformity determined to prevent kids from enjoying themselves.
This dopey misconception was probably inevitable after the success of the movie version of "Lenny," in which the life and legend of Lenny Bruce was white washed to accord with the sentimental preferences of a post-Woodstock generation. It may have been made even more inevitable by the obvious desire of the producers of this film to find an excuse for a hit soundtrack album of golden oldies. If you can believe what you see in "American Hot Wax," the only person in the New York record business taking bribes in 1959 was the janitor at Freed's radio station.
Freed became a popular personality on New York radio and television in the late '50s with a daily disc jockey slot and a weekly dance show for teens. He is frequently credited with coining the term rock 'n' roll. His career hit the skids when he became associated with the term "payola." Freed was the key figure in an investigation of kickbacks in the record business begun by Frank Hogan, the New York district attorney, in 1959. Freed was dismissed by both WNEW-TV and WABC radio when he refused to sign a statement denying that he had ever taken payola, i.e., accepted money from producers or promoters to play a record.
Freed moved to Los Angeles, where he got another disc jockey job. Criminal charges were filed in 1960 accusing him of accepting a total of $30,650 in bribes from seven record companies to favor their releases. He pleaded guilty to two counts of bribery in 1962 and was fined $300 and given a six-month suspended sentence. He died two years later at the age of 42.
Director Floyd Mutrux and screen-writer John Kaye evidently fail to perceive that the liveliest elements in their movie contradict their admiring view of Freed as a pop-culture hero and martyr. In the hysterical world Freed appears to dominate, bribery might be the only way to get the star's undivided attention.But the filmmakers insist on looking at their subject matter through rose-colored nostalgic glasses.
Tim McIntire gives an oddly studied, brooding impersonation of Freed. He looks more like the young Orson Welles or Jonathan Winters, but there's something mean and calculating hidden just beneath his pudgy features that might have given grit to a comedy conceived with more ambition and wit.
The scenario consists of a handful of episodes leading up to a Freed rock 'n' roll concert in Brooklyn distrupted by minions of the law. This denoucment seems to violate the spirit of the tacky, amiable musicals Sam Katzman produced in the heyday of rock 'n' roll, occasionally with Alan Freed playing himself. In those jambores, intolerant, misinformed adults were always trying to stop the show, but ultimately reason prevailed and they agreed it was all a harmless and perhaps even wholesome outlet for teen impulses. These filmmakers could use some of Katzman's smarts.