×

TV Review: ‘Sun Records’ on CMT

A new drama meanders through the nascent careers of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Ike Turner — starring Chad Michael Murray as legendary producer Sam Phillips

With:
Chad Michael Murray, Billy Gardell, Keir O’Donnell, Drake Milligan, Kevin Fonteyne, Christian Lees, Trevor Donovan, Jonah Lees, Jennifer Holland, Margaret Anne Florence, Kerry Holliday

Sun Records” is based, loosely, on the musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” which tells the story of the real-life, mostly impromptu jam session between Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins at a Memphis joint named Sun Records. That little record label was owned by a small-time producer named Sam Phillips, who despite marginal financial success went on to be immortalized in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — for discovering Presley, working with artists like Cash, Lewis, and Roy Orbison, and for producing the Delta Cats’ “Rocket 88,” an Ike Turner song that is considered to be the first rock and roll record.

Rock and roll history is dense, fertile territory for mythmaking and nostalgia, and Sun Records, the historic institution, is as good a peg as any. But “Sun Records,” the show, doesn’t quite tap into the raw power of rock and roll — or blues, or rockabilly, or R&B. The history of the birth of rock and roll is one of conflict and convergence, of a white mainstream co-opting and retooling the sound of black musicians. “Sun Records” attempts to handle some of these heavier issues with occasional success. But the show is far more invested in being a lightweight, soapy set of biopics — there’s a lot of meet-cutes in charmingly ‘50s spots, like the roller rink or the high school gym — that is more about playacting with a sanitized version of the ‘50s than it is about the history of this moment.

It doesn’t help that “Sun Records” is devoid of plot. The jam session that the musical is based on is so far off in the story’s future that by the third episode, young Elvis (Drake Milligan) hasn’t even met Sam Phillips (Chad Michael Murray). There is precious little material to push the plot forward; instead the various characters mostly exist in their own stories.

For a fan of the era’s music or a history buff, this will not be a problem. Colonel Tom Parker (Billy Gardell), the colorful figure who becomes Elvis’ manager, is instantly recognizable; and it’s hard not to fall for the baby heartthrobs as played by Milligan and the other cast members: Kevin Fonteyne as soulful Johnny Cash, Christian Lees as lightning-in-a-bottle Jerry Lee Lewis. Margaret Anne Florence plays Marion Keisker, the radio personality and Sun Records office manager who discovered Elvis in 1953. (She is the one who famously asked, “What kind of singer are you? Who do you sound like?” to which he responded, “I sing all kinds… I don’t sound like nobody.”)

But for everyone else, “Sun Records” is a long preamble of waiting for something to happen — as it rehashes the era and familiar beats of the many, many biopics that have preceded it. Johnny Cash’s story, in particular, seems egregious, given how well-regarded 2005’s “Walk the Line” was. And “Sun Records” seems like a sister production to 2008’s “Cadillac Records,” which similarly tells the story of a white producer curious about the commercial potential of the changing black music scene. That film’s subject, the more successful producer and exec Leonard Chess, shows up in the third episode of “Sun Records.”

“Sun Records” is a forgettable enough nostalgia trip, with very occasional numbers to remind the audience the topic is in fact music. Milligan’s interpretation of young Elvis enjoyably apes the King, and Murray as the unstable Phillips is predictably charming. But despite demonstrating how Presley and Phillips ran afoul of the white establishment for their interest in “colored music,” all of “Sun Records’” leads, save one, are white people who profited off of bringing that music into mainstream Americana. “Sun Records” leaves the viewer feeling like there’s more history to tell.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: 'Sun Records' on CMT

Drama, 8 episodes (3 reviewed): CMT, Thurs. Feb. 23, 10 p.m. 60 min.

Crew: Executive producers, Leslie Greif, Gil Grant

Cast: Chad Michael Murray, Billy Gardell, Keir O’Donnell, Drake Milligan, Kevin Fonteyne, Christian Lees, Trevor Donovan, Jonah Lees, Jennifer Holland, Margaret Anne Florence, Kerry Holliday

More TV

  • James Corden Variety Cover Story

    James Corden Signs Deal to Host 'Late Late Show' Through 2022

    James Corden has signed a new deal with CBS which will see him stay on as host of “The Late Late Show” through 2022. The multi-talented Brit had been in advanced negotiations with the studio since May, and the new deal is sure to see him score a substantial bump in pay. The previous deal [...]

  • Reese Witherspoon

    Reese Witherspoon, Home Edit Duo Set Lifestyle Series at Netflix

    Netflix has ordered a new lifestyle series that boasts Reese Witherspoon among its executive producers. The hour-long series will follow master home organizes Clea Sherer and Joanna Teplin, the duo behind The Home Edit company. In each episode, Sherer and Teplin will transform the lives of their clients by conquering clutter with their signature style. [...]

  • 'RuPaul's Drag Race' Renewed for Season

    VH1 Renews Two Series in 'RuPaul's Drag Race' Franchise

    “RuPaul’s Drag Race” has been renewed for Season 12 at VH1, the cabler announced Monday. Additionally, the “All Stars” version of the show has been renewed for Season 5. RuPaul made the announcement in a video, which you can see below. The flagship series will welcome a fresh group of drag queens eager to prove [...]

  • TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 07: Actor

    'Fleabag' Star Andrew Scott Joins 'His Dark Materials' at HBO

    Andrew Scott, known to many as the “hot priest” from season 2 of “Fleabag,” has joined the cast of the “His Dark Materials” adaptation at HBO. The announcement was made via a tweet on the series’ official Twitter account which shows Scott on set with Lin Manuel Miranda, who is set to play Lee Scoresby [...]

  • Stephen Amell Arrow Season 5

    'Arrow' Star Stephen Amell to Lead Starz Wrestling Drama 'Heels'

    Stephen Amell has set his first major post-“Arrow” role. The actor, who will make his final outing as the bow-wielding super hero this season, has been cast as the lead in a wrestling drama series entitled “Heels,” which has been handed an eight-episode order by Starz. The hour-long drama is set in a close-knit Georgia [...]

  • Curiosity Stream Altice

    Altice USA Pacts With John Hendricks' CuriosityStream Service

    Altice USA has set a deal with John Hendricks’ CuriosityStream to expand distribution of the science- and history-focused subscription streaming service. The deal will make CuriosityStream available to all Altice USA’s 4.9 million customers across 21 states, including a big cluster serving New York and Connecticut. Altice also plans to add the CuriosityStream app to [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content