AMERICAN HOT WAX added its rolling rock of nostalgia to 1978’s oldies odes, a teen angel crew spiked by the year’s biggest hit, Grease. Energized by Gary Busey, The Buddy Holly Story bopped into 25th place, with ‘boss’ surfing epic Big Wednesday beached at an undeserved 95th. Nestled at spot #50 with a gross of $12,300,000, this feverishly affectionate (and soft-pedaled) salute to seminal 1950’s deejay Alan Freed was written by John Kaye (Where The Buffalo Roam), directed by Floyd Mutrux (Aloha Bobby and Rose).
1959. Controversial disc jockey Alan Freed lines up some proven hot acts and a few hopefuls for a live music romp at a theater in New York City. Conservative elements (corporate fraidy cats, offended clergy, humorless Feds, clobber-happy cops) mean to derail Freed and the show, vainly trying to put the sex-invoking r&r genie back into a neutered milk bottle.
Movies have been honoring/exhuming/reimagining/besmirching the past since even before 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, a western shot in…New Jersey. Some do justice to times, people and attitudes gone by, others just use them as a tempting template to throw creative license at the screen and see if it sticks—long enough to rake bucks—before some clyde with basic knowledge of The Bible/Middle Ages/Alamo/WW2/Legality/Science/Rock & Roll/teeth brushing raises a paw and snuffles “Um, well, er…okay, whatever…”
The 1970’s saw a delirious mood swing from the country’s social fracturing & political humiliations (and a sickening war): en masse people suddenly salved psychic wounds and “screw it!” pessimism by unearthing the generally optimistic boom of the mid-50’s and early 60’s, specifically via their buried treasure trove of pop tunes. Goosed by the jokey music group Sha Na Na, time travel trips went from great (American Graffiti) to goop (Happy Days), flagged careers were given new juice, a cottage industry of selective memory sunk roots. Easy to see why, especially if you’re old enough to effortlessly recall literally hundreds of touching, rowdy or amusing songs, singers and groups, or if younger, are discerning enough (don’t wanna diss those cursed with being under retirement age) to appreciate what you missed out on before hate music beat the wonder out of you.
Apart from the smart and winning The Wonder Years, the TV’s entries didn’t show much; eight seasons of the execrable Laverne & Shirley helping drop national I.Q. by double digits. Movies fared better, though American Hot Wax suffers from the same sort of pound-it-home ethos that made Beyond The Sea (Kevin Spacey’s ego-trip tribute to Bobby Darin) a brain-pain. The waxy script attempts to bludgeon you into accepting Alan Freed’s importance by having fawning characters drop his name over & over to the point you’ll pray for the next number to pop up on the soundtrack. The tempo of the direction is frenzied: nearly every scene is hammered across with nervous cuts and breathless jabber. The script simplifies and streamlines, playing standard lazy screenwriter havoc with chronology and totally leaves out the payola scandal that helped derail Freed’s career. It’s less a convincing pass at a period than a force-fed history lesson for those who don’t know Squat, Jack, let alone Freed, Alan.
What makes the jagged jumble readily watchable are the performances: everyone gives their best shot. First and foremost is the superb Tim McIntire as Freed; his honest and natural delivery does wonders in covering over the paper-thin writing. His laid back nice guy here made a vivid counterpoint to his brutal cop of The Choirboys: McIntire’s swaggering ‘Roscoe Rules’ easily the best thing in that maligned picture. A pair of newcomers enjoy themselves as Freed’s assistants who bicker & flirt with one another: brash Jay Leno, 27, in his first credited appearance, and snappy Fran Drescher, 21, her second role after a bit in Saturday Night Fever. SNL member Laraine Newman does well in a small part as a hopeful songwriter, supposedly inspired by Carole King.
Adding authenticity (aged vintage) were icons Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, the bizarre apparition known as Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and one-hitter Frankie Ford. Though unfazed Berry at 51 and wildass Lewis at 42 were obviously not the fresh punk dangers who threatened American moral fabric in the Ike Age, their presence helps fire up the Big Show finale (another thing the script plays dodge ball with).
91 minutes, with Moosie Drier, Jeff Altman, Brenda Russell, Hamilton Camp, Kenny Vance (of Jay and the Americans—right the hell on!), Jo Ann Harris, Joe Esposito, Cameron Crowe (future rock chronicler).
* Talent ran in the family: McIntire was the son of marvelous character actors John McIntire and Jeanette Nolan. They both outlived their son, Tim dying at 41 from congestive heart failure, following problems with drug and alcohol abuse. Ironically his too-soon flameout mirrored the mover & shaker he played in this movie: Freed was just 43 when he died in 1965 of uremia and cirrhosis brought on by alcoholism. Vintage rock & roll flicks featuring the ebullient Mr. Freed in their casts: Rock Around The Clock (1956), Don’t Knock The Rock (1956), Rock, Rock, Rock! (1956) and Go, Johnny, Go! (1958).