Television has not served rock as well a rock has served television. With the exception of Dick Clark and Don Kirshner, television has traditionally regarded rock 'n' roll as late-breaking news, particularly when the news was bad. Though producer Jerry Harrison would have you believe that this art form of the young has always been accepted and understood by the elders controlling the tube, "The Roots of Rock 'n' Roll," a six-part mini-series of hour-long stabs at music history (starting on Channel 5 at 11 tonight), shows that business goes on as usual in Hollywood.
There are all sorts of immediate warning signs in the first two segments, the worst of which is the u s of Movietone News clips to place the music in a social and historical context. "Rock 'n' roll was a reflection of the times in which it was born. Like the 1955 revolution that toppled the regime of Argentinean dictator Juan Peron, it radically altered the way the music business had been for half a century." It sounds more like a plug for "Evita" than a true connection. In "Part 2: The Teen Idols," there's an extended segment of Marilyn Monroe singing happy birthday to President John F. Kennedy that segues into Elton John singing "Goodbye Norma Jean" against some film clips of Monroe. You have to dig mighty deep to see the connection with early-'60s rock 'n' roll Elton does turn up as a host later in the series.
More discouraging is the revisionist rock theory that occasionally intrudes on the program's already specious overview. "Although not really a rock 'n' roller himself, Pat Boone's contribution to rock 'n' roll is significant. His toned-down cover versions of then little-known rhythm & blues songs greatly speeded the acceptance of rock and bridged the gap to the real thing." Which is pure hogwash, as is Boone's not-so-convincing explanation of how thankful Fats Domino was for those cover versions. Using Frankie Avalon to host the kickoff "Rock Starts Rolling" is somewhat galling, but the program notes indicate "he's one of Hollywood's most prodigious fathers [8 children] . . . a top-flight golfer with a low handicap . .. a rave-setting dramatic actor." You know, a real rock 'n' roller, the perfect commentator on the origins of the genre.
Unlike the "History of Rock and roll" of a few years ago, "Roots of Rock 'n' Roll" wastes or misuses the ancient film and video clips that most effectively convey the spirit of the times. Potentially wonderful scenes of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis get drowned out by lugubrious narration. Worse, the show brings back a lot of the original grouops -- the Flamingos, the Shirelles, the Drifters, the Chantells, grown-up Little Anthony mocking "Tears on My Pillow" -- and throws them into a sterile 1981 studio to lip-synch 20-year-old hits. The effect is at once distressing and ridiculous, particularly when the acts don't do their job well. And there's too much talk from lame pop stars like Paul Anka and Neil Sedaka (the Peter Allen of his day). Bobby Darin and Anka (who happens to host Part 2) get longer segments than Elvis Presley.
Among the few highlightsof the first two segments: Carl Perkins talking about writing "Blue Suede Shoes" and reminiscing about Elvis; a guileless Fabian saying of the fans' screaming: "I came to find out that meant you were popular;" the solemn grace of deejay Alan Freed in high contrast to the bombast of Wolfman Jack. But the irritations are overwhelming, the conception as bland as an easy-listening radio station broadcasting a six-hour history of rock 'n' roll. As so often happens on ill-conceived and badly researched documentaries, you walk away with neither enjoyment nor new knowledge. And that is the fault of television, not rock 'n' roll.