Tom Hanks’ “That Thing You Do,” despite its mixed B.O. performance and critical response, had the ability to charm the pants off its selected audience. “Shake, Rattle & Roll” enters the same ballpark, with its fictional leads rocking to the top and then finding the summit less than fulfilling. While sharing many of “Thing’s” charms, “Shake” covers a longer period, meandering on a “Forrest Gump”-like journey as it puts its characters everywhere from Sun Studios to across the street from the Brill Building to a civil rights march in the South.
The two key relationships — the friendship of Lyne Danner (Bonnie Somerville) and Marsha Stokes (Samaria Graham) and the romance between Danner and Tyler Hart (Brad Hawkins) — are driven by sharp and well-articulated performances. Mike Robe’s direction is as well-focused as his story, and every scene rings with at least the twinge of truth — until the ending, which takes the easy way out by killing one character and reuniting a pair. Both scenes are forced and heavy-handed in an otherwise generally intoxicating study of youngsters as they blossom alongside rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s.
Danner is an Air Force brat with considerable musical aptitude who has just moved to the small community of Swanson, Mo., from Guam. She plays violin in the school band, where she meets Hart, who puts aside his trumpet on weekends to play guitar and sing in a country band. Hart has a girlfriend, which temporarily puts the brakes on any romance with Danner and keeps the duo focused on their music, specifically the R&B Danner enjoyed with Stokes in Guam.
A trip to nearby Fayetteville to see Little Richard (Billy Porter) further fuels Hart’s ambition to play rock ‘n’ roll, and soon his C&W unit is attempting Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” with Danner on piano. Their rock effort is met with disdain by Hart’s father and, more glaringly, g.f. Noreen (Maggie Gylenhaal), who prevents the HartAches (echoes of the One-ders?) from playing a school formal.
Hart composes an upbeat number, “Baby Here I Am,” that will be heard almost as often as the title track in “That Thing You Do,” and at the dance, the HartAches commandeer the stage to play it for the high schoolers. Naturally, it goes over big.
After graduation, the band heads off for Memphis, where they run into Fats Domino (Mark Christopher Lawrence), who gives them some studio time. (By the end of the telepic, the paths of Hart and Danner will cross those of Elvis Presley, Bill Haley, Eddie Cochran, Neil Sedaka and an “American Bandstand” producer).
Pic follows the band’s quick rise into the top-30 with their tune “Baby, Here I Am.” They stall after the public rejects the notion of a woman in a rock band, and head home broke. From Swanson, they make it to Kansas City, where Czar Records czarina Elaine Gunn (Dana Delany) warms to Hart and gets him signed along with bandmates Dotson (Kai Lennox) and Mookie (Travis Fine). Part one ends with Mookie being hit by a cab and Danner showing signs of morning sickness.
Part two opens with infighting as the band has been removed from the marquee as Tyler Hart becomes Czar’s rising star. Hart proposes marriage after learning Danner is pregnant, but the Gunns explain that Hart needs to appear single to maintain his career. Hart becomes a pawn in their game, turning to teen-idol covers as the band revolts and leaves. Danner, after an ugly fight in which she is thrown to the ground, loses the baby.
Danner decides to pick up the pieces by heading to New York to be close to old friend Stokes. Through dumb luck and coincidence, she winds up working with a music publisher, and before long, she’s penned a hit for Stokes. Hart, meanwhile, continues to take the safe route, playing schmaltzy ballads instead of rockers, which eventually costs him his career.
Stokes surrenders her blossoming pop career for frontline duty in the Civil Rights movement. She leaves Gotham for Mississippi, and Danner follows. Pic closes on a series of forced emotions.
Graham’s nuanced portrait of Stokes is the shining portrayal in this engaging four-hour pic. As a teenager, she’s gleeful and open — the give-and-take friendship with Danner is instantly visceral and, with historical hindsight in place, touching. Older, she holds down the emotional fort for herself and her friend; as an activist, she is fulfilled.
Fortunately, script gives the Danner-Stokes friendship a weight equal to the romance between Danner and Hart. Only the celebrities approach cardboard depictions, and their purpose is more story movement and time placement. Wisely, facts — and legends — are kept to a minimum and used to complement the story rather than shoehorn it.
Fortunately, “Shake, Rattle & Roll” doesn’t test the boundaries of possibilities. Hart, whose ambition is tempered by compromise until he knows only how to take the easy way out, is somewhat patterned after two Buddys, Knox and Holly, whose raw music was tempered in the interest of hits. That the hits stop coming nicely parallel the change in musical tastes from the 1950s to the early ’60s.
Music throughout is solidly performed by a host of contempo pop stars: Blink 182, K-Ci & JoJo, Chante Moore, Gary Allan and Terence Trent D’Arby. B. B. King has a cameo as a blues singer. Original music hits the mark better in the faux ’50s songs; the 1960s numbers sound more Broadway than Brill Building.