Smitten and set up for verbal abuse from the moment he laid eyes on Cherilyn Sarkisian LaPierre, Sonny Bono led the life of a Hustler Who Could. In "And the Beat Goes On," he's depicted as a tenacious, if modestly talented, musical aspirant hellbent on success, whose heart was always in the right place. No matter how accurate that portrait might be, the telepic is stocked with layer upon layer of fluff as it hurries from their meeting to their splitup and eventual reunion on David Letterman's latenight show.

Smitten and set up for verbal abuse from the moment he laid eyes on Cherilyn Sarkisian LaPierre, Sonny Bono led the life of a Hustler Who Could. In “And the Beat Goes On,” he’s depicted as a tenacious, if modestly talented, musical aspirant hellbent on success, whose heart was always in the right place. No matter how accurate that portrait might be, the telepic is stocked with layer upon layer of fluff as it hurries from their meeting to their splitup and eventual reunion on David Letterman’s latenight show.

Ellen Weston’s script, based on Bono’s autobiography, reduces Sonny and Cher to their individual motivations: She wants to see her name in lights; he seeks fame, but doesn’t need to be a star. Seeing that his shot at success is intrinsically linked to her stardom, Bono (Jay Underwood) asks “how high” each time Cher (Renee Faia) even hints that he should jump.

Sonny responded to Cher’s every pipedream, “And the Beat Goes On” portends, and found a way to make it all work — as a coffeehouse act, as recording artists, as TV stars, as a Vegas act, everything except the movies.

The biopic plays loose with the facts about how established Bono was in the music biz when he met Cher, where they married, how established Cher was as a solo artist and exactly how big they had become by 1969 when they decided to take a break from the hubbub.

While the phrase “boffo B.O.” never accompanied a story on Sonny & Cher’s films, they were at least released and at least a few fans went to see them, contrary to this “Beat.”

The telefilm starts with Sonny hustling songs and trying to get in with Art Rupe’s Specialty Records and, later on, uber-producer Phil Spector. Bono meets Cher, and she immediately starts with the put-downs. The formula they milked for a decade in their public lives was at the core of their private relationship, the vidpic indicates. It’s hard to swallow.

Spector, who would eventually record Cher for a novelty single, appears uninterested in Sonny’s then-underage concubine and equally annoyed that Bono would attempt to play A&R man for him.

The story shifts into high gear as the duo starts to work as Caesar & Cleo. At a bowling alley, they attract agents Brian Stone (Matthew Chaffee) and Charlie Green (Thomas Tofel), who promise a contract at Atco and voila!, Sonny and Cher are on the charts. Sonny’s thrilled, but soon his life is spent trying to appease Cher: Making records gets old, touring gets old, making a movie gets old. Cher wants out, Cher gets out.

Once their luck runs out, the duo is off to Las Vegas as an opening act. Boom, success. They turn to TV. Boom, success. Still, Cher is never happy; Sonny’s patience starts to wear thin. No mention is made of Cher’s solo success that’s been constant since 1966, and, once they separate, viewers will wonder why they were even together.

And it all plays flat. Virtually every aspect of the acting and directing is yeoman-like; there’s no pep or verve. In many ways, Sonny & Cher was an act that had a prolonged moment in the sun. They became the last hangers-on of an era that valued production values as much as a bohemian look: Did anyone else switch to gowns and tuxes from moccasins and headbands as fast as Sonny & Cher?

They didn’t fit in with the business execs Sonny had befriended for most of the ’60s. They certainly were outclassed by rock’s experimentalism in the very late ’60s. The abrupt transition, which could have made the rise fall and rise of this biopic much more compact and compelling, is explained haphazardly with a single restaurant scene.

In Renee Faia, the producers have found a woman who can be a stunning Cher look-alike, particularly in scene one and during the launch of the duo’s TV show. She has all the staged mannerisms down pat and plays every other scene as high-strung or bummed out. It works against Underwood in the role of Sonny. No. 1, Bono always looked like an Italian waiter, Underwood resembles a mechanic; second, Bono balanced acquiescence and perseverance. Here he’s more of an overachieving doormat.

Similarly, the singing voice of Cher (Kelly van Hoose Smith) is bold, brazen and dead-on when compared with every recording she has made since 1970. Jess Harnell, singing for Sonny, is disturbingly more nasal than the original.

Letterman and Little Richard are played over the top; Christian Leffler’s Spector is creepy enough, and most of the other surrounding characters do little more than help usher the story along quickly.

The two-hour spec, coming on the heels of the successful yet flimsy “The ’60s” mini, closes with actual shots from Sonny’s funeral and Cher’s eulogy. Her striking words suggest there was much more to this man than what “And the Beat Goes On” tosses onto the screen, and even more to their tempestuous relationship.

At best, it might revive interest in some of the duo’s less-familiar work.

And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story

ABC; Mon. Feb. 22, 9 p.m.

Production

Filmed in Los Angeles by the Larry Thompson Organization. Executive producer, Larry A. Thompson; co-executive producer, Mary Bono; producer, Daniel Schneider; co-producer, Ellen Weston; director, David Burton Morris; writer, Weston, based on the book by Sonny Bono.

Cast

Sonny Bono - Jay Underwood Cher - Renee Faia Phil Spector - Christian Leffler Buddy Black - Jim Pirri Art Rupe - Bruce Nozick Bumps Blackwell - Carl Gilliard Little Richard - Walter Franks Brian Stone - Matthew Chaffee Charlie Green - Thomas Tofel Georgia LaPierre - Laura Johnson David Geffen - Mahrayh Shaine David Letterman - Tom Frykman With: Christine Brent, Maurice Chasse, Phill Miller, Vinnie Argiro, Marie Wilson, Susan Ilene Johnson, Duke Moosekian, Larry Milburn.
Director of photography, Anthony B. Richmond; editor, Michael S. Murphy; production designer, James Agazzi; music, Steve Tyrell; singing voices: Jess Harnell (Sonny), Kelly van Hoose Smith (Cher); casting, Donna Eckholdt. 2 HOURS

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