Every Alan Freed legend involves one of three images: rock ‘n’ roll visionary, payola victim, broken man. NBC’s attempt to penetrate those superficialities comes out mixed. For once there’s more to the picture than just scandal, but the relationship that caused his troubles — a business partnership with Morris Levy — is the only one painted with sufficient depth.
Key component missing here is energy. While the first attempt at detailing Freed’s life and effect on rock ‘n’ roll’s early days, Paramount’s 1978 pic “American Hot Wax,” had its weaknesses, it did capture the mayhem and frivolity of his concerts and radio shows. Judd Nelson is too much of a ’90s guy in his perf as Freed, who, judging by the movies he made in the 1950s, was a stiff character who appeared old enough to have fathered some of the acts he featured.
Freed was a radio deejay not unlike any other as the story starts “a few years earlier” than 1957. He is playing big band music in Cleveland on the air and at dances. At one, a teenager slips in a Little Richard single to get the joint hopping.
Outrage and racist charges come spewing from the waltzing adults, but Freed is turned on –within a day, he’s at a local record shop watching black and white teens rocking to R&B records.
Fate, rather than perseverance, lands a one-hour R&B show in Freed’s lap, complete with a sponsor and the support of the radio station. He makes fast friends with a dance instructor down the hall from the studio, Jackie McCoy (Madchen Amick), and before you know it, Freed has the girl, unparalleled success, the faith of Jackie Wilson and a show at the 8,000-seat Cleveland Arena.
A car crash stalls Freed for all of half a minute as a doctor with hideous bedside manner and equally awkward acting skills gives Freed 10 years to live if he stops smoking, drinking and staying out late. No matter, Freed is now the premier talent scout for black acts — he plays your song and you’re a hit — as acts such as Bo Diddley start to audition in the hallways and do-wop acts shove records at him as he arrives at work.
Freed, now married and a father, moves to New York, where he becomes the No. 1 radio personality “almost overnight.” For the first time, he runs into outraged parents and assuages them with a bit of self-righteousness that feels out of place for the period.
This Freed is a man who sticks to his word: Despite his wife’s threats to leave him, he pledges to do everything to keep his family together, which leads him to get involved with the mob-connected Morris Levy, who controls Jackie Wilson and runs Roulette Records.
Levy’s $20,000 loan to Freed for a house in Connecticut is eventually what will lead to Freed’s downfall in the payola scandal. As much as Freed tries to hold everything together — the radio show, TV show, tours and movies — it all begins to crumble. Wife’s gone, 20 TV stations want him canceled after Frankie Lymon dances with a white girl, a Boston concert turns into a riot with police, Levy wants him out of the spotlight, and a girlfriend, Denise Walton (Paula Abdul reading some very forced dialogue), enters the picture.
According to the script, everyone is out to get Freed: Levy, the New York City district attorney, the New York State D.A., the FBI and the New York attorney general. Levy, whose terse discussions with a stubborn Freed are the telepic’s highlights, informs him that the record companies are given immunity to pin the scandal on the radio stations. Freed is fired. He signs off with “Goodnight, My Love” and it’s suggested, falsely, in the credits that he would never be heard from again. In 1965 Freed died in Palm Springs at the age of 43.
Pic ignores the last five years of his life just as it overlooks the emotional connection Freed had with the music. Far too easygoing, Nelson plays Freed as if the deejay were Paul Reiser — half the pic goes by before we see any fire in his belly.
While David Gianopoulos’ Levy is cagey, thesp also captures the charm that sucked in many a businessman and musical performer. Leon is admirable as Wilson, though as depicted, Wilson’s relationship with Freed serves mainly to demonstrate the latter’s comfort with black performers and never gets very deep.
Amick plays Jackie with a captivating coldness at the start and finish, but she’s seemingly out of character in her middle scenes which are, oddly, sexually charged.
Voiceover is overused as Nelson provides a timeline rather than emotional clues; for example, at the point of Freed’s greatest popularity, the period is covered with a single mention of “two years of our heaviest activity.” While lip-synching to the original recordings ranges from the abysmal to passable, pic hits technical apex depicting Wilson singing “Lonely Teardrops” at Levy’s nightclub.
Historians will quibble with a number of facts, including the switching of instruments between drummer Frank Kirkland and maracas player Jerome Green, a depiction of Bill Haley playing lead guitar (it should have been Danny Cedrone) and the list of songs that the parents complain about, which features two that would be unlikely contenders for Freed’s show. And for a guy who is credited with coining the term “rock ‘n’ roll,” there probably should have been at least some discussion of why he called it that.