"I invented rock-and-roll. . . . I am rock-and-roll," legendary deejay Alan Freed insists toward the end of "Mr. Rock 'n' Roll: The Alan Freed Story" (Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC), but such egomaniacal pronouncements sound absurd coming out of the mouth of Judd Nelson. Nelson portrays Freed--very, very badly--for this latest chapter in NBC's apparent quest to recast rock history through music-drenched melodramas. They did it wonderfully well last year with "The Temptations," and fitfully well with "The '60s."
"Mr. Rock 'n' Roll," however, is a disaster from start to finish, with hagiography masquerading as Rock-and-Roll History for Dummies.
Freed's story is certainly worth telling--in the early to mid-'50s, the white deejay did champion black R&B and help slip it into the white mainstream through his radio shows in Cleveland and New York, concerts, tours, television shows and several films. Freed genuinely loved the music and certainly endured a great deal of punishment from conservative forces--ultra-conservative white parents, mobbed-up label owners, the FBI--who didn't like him championing "black music." As several fathers vehemently protest when Freed plays R&B at a sock hop: "That's colored. . . . It's ugly, it's trash." For an indication of director Andy Wolk's sense of irony, those parents are played by failed '50s teen idols Fabian and Bobby Rydell.
The two-hour film is adapted from John A. Jackson's 1991 biography, "Big Beat Heat: Alan Freed and the Early Years of Rock and Roll," but Matt Dorff's script feels like it was written in broad crayon strokes, thanks to such lines as "This rock-and-roll scourge may turn out to be more dangerous than communism" (spoken by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover as he launches a secret investigation of Freed based on his association with "many Negroes").
The personal history is somewhat suspect as well: This Alan Freed is essentially a saint, quick to defend the music against its racist detractors and usurpers. When his ABC television show is threatened with cancelation after Frankie Lymon is shown dancing with a white girl and Freed is told he must drop the black acts and replace them with white rock-and-rollers, he protests, "For crying out loud, the music was born in the Negro culture. They pioneered it!"
But the film dances more gingerly around such issues as Freed's habit of taking writing credits, and the resulting royalties, on songs he appropriated from others and then turned into hits (no mention of that); and payola, the pay-for-play practice that finally destroyed his career in the early '60s after he was grilled by a Congressional committee and fined $300 for commercial bribery.
Five years later, Freed was dead of uremic poisoning, a result of alcoholism. The film ends with him reading about the Capitol Hill inquiries, and thus it unfortunately misses the actual the drama of that confrontation. About the only drama involves his relationship with mob-connected label owner Morris Levy (David Gianopoulos), but the Alan Freed in the movie, unlike the one in the real world, denies ever doing anything illegal. In truth, he was as much an opportunist as a visionary, something that was true of most of rock-and-roll's early entrepreneurs.
The soundtrack, consisting of authentic '50s period music, is unassailable, though some of the lip- and hip-syncing is dreadful (notably the faux Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly). The one exception is Leon, a standout as David Ruffin in "The Temptations," here cast as Mr. Excitement, Jackie Wilson. In his few scenes, Leon dominates the screen. Maybe NBC should do "The Jackie Wilson Story" next. Madchen Amick gets the thankless task of playing Freed's wife and having to be the romantic foil to Judd Nelson, who is the major, inescapable problem with "Mr. Rock 'n' Roll." Nelson, who also narrates the story, lacks any semblance of style (much less any resemblance to Freed's kinetic personality). His delivery is annoyingly soporific throughout, but particularly when he's portraying Freed on the air. Had Alan Freed been this deadly dull, rock-and-roll might never have taken off.