Ludicrous to a degree that suggests we may have to redefine the term--or perhaps come up with a new word altogether--"Shake, Rattle & Roll" slips, bumbles and drones as it recounts the alleged history of rock music through the lives of two doe-eyed, dough-brained lovers from Missouri.
In four hours that seem like four months, the CBS miniseries--tomorrow and Wednesday nights at 9 on Channel 9--offers the most squeaky-clean and sanitized version yet of rox populi, portraying the rock world as a sterile candy-cane land of earnest young artists who wouldn't smoke a joint even if it were planted in their paws by Glinda the Good.
This is the "Roots" of rock only as it might be re-imagined for fans of "Touched by an Angel." And yet various scenes show "hip" young rebel-kids of the '50s and '60s scoffing at such pop artists as Perry Como, whose career, contrary to the moronic script of this film, did not end abruptly the minute Elvis Presley swiveled his first hip.
The film does see rock and rhythm and blues and other music of the era as helping one generation surmount the heinous racial prejudices of older folk, which is a benign if not wholly accurate interpretation of what happened. Our shakers, rattlers and rollers are interested in music whatever its ethnic source, and interracial friendships among the young are presented as happily matter-of-fact--which may be atypical but at least has a certain sweet charm.
Unfortunately it leads to such scenes as the prim and prissy heroine attempting to snap her fingers while crossing her hands in front of her as an African American trio sings "Tears on My Pillow" following the integration of an appliance store. How's that again?
The hero, a rockabilly innocent named Tyler Hart, and the heroine, a stick-to-it-tiviter named Lyne Danner, are split asunder as the years pass and their little band, the HartAches, breaks up. We know they'll get back together once all the preposterous soap opera and melodrama (one band member is hit by a cab) are out of the way. Elegantly pretty Bonnie Somerville is ingratiating enough to make her simplistic character tolerable, and Brad Hawkins projects a farm-boy hunkiness as Hart.
CBS's gimmick for the production is the appearance of such current luminaries as Terence Trent D'Arby playing rock immortals like Jackie Wilson, and occasionally an inimitable original like B.B. King playing himself. Other actors give nonmusical performances as Fats Domino and the great god Elvis, who on hearing the HartAches tells them, "You folks really rock." Imagine their surprise.
Other cameos, mostly in Part 2, include Edd "Kookie" Byrnes from the late-'50s/early-'60s show "77 Sunset Strip," and former actor Troy Donahue, whose name was misspelled in the (probably temporary) opening credits on the tape submitted by CBS for review.
In spite of the fact that everyone loves, craves and adores the HartAches, they're repeatedly being pressured by promoters or producers to completely change their style. Some members of the group want to remain true to whatever junk they originally played in the barn, but Hart listens to advice from, among others, Dana Delany as a predatory executive.
Oh, the fiery dramatic conflicts that fail to result.
Insultingly, the film reduces the civil rights movement to just another piece of pop culture--kind of an adjunct to the rock revolution! A protest march is poorly staged and leads to the death-by-shooting of one of the film's most likable--indeed, impossible to dislike--characters. The writers make one wrong turn after another until they've built themselves into a maze with no possible right ones. So they just end the horrid thing and turn off the lights.
There are only two conceivable explanations for the awfulness of the film: The people who made it are stupid, or the people who made it obeyed every note they got from network executives. In which case they're back to being stupid in the first place.
It really begins to seem that telling the history of rock music on film brings out the worst in those who attempt it.
Tyler Hart does make his own history of a sort in Part 2. He appears on Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" and doesn't lip-sync to a record! Talk about bucking tradition! If only "Shake, Rattle & Roll" bothered to buck a few traditions itself.
CAPTION: Brad Hawkins and Bonnie Somerville in the not-so-rocking "Shake, Rattle & Roll."
CAPTION: Billy Porter as Little Richard in "Shake, Rattle & Roll," CBS's dreadful take on the early days of rock.