Mr. Rock 'n' Roll: The Alan Freed Story, biographical film, biography, review, biopic

Mr. Rock 'n' Roll: The Alan Freed Story (1999) 

He was the man who gave us the phrase rock ‘n’ roll. Through his radio show in Cleveland and later New York, Alan Freed introduced the white youth of America to the music of African Americans. He then hosted concerts featuring the biggest names of the day, and when Hollywood took notice, he was on duty to guide them through such fare as Rock Around the Clock, Rock Rock Rock! and Don't Knock the Rock. Yet his reputation and influence diminished rapidly when the payola scandal broke, and he died shortly afterwards at the age of 43. If Freed’s place in music history is largely forgotten today, this biopic will do precious little to redress that.

 

Noticing the popularity of rhythm and blues records amongst Cleveland’s teenagers, Freed dedicates an hour of his radio show to the genre. The format’s a hit, resulting in the disc jockey being mobbed by fans of the artists whose records he plays. Seeking to promote rock ‘n’ roll further, Freed takes the risky move of promoting concerts featuring the likes of Jackie Wilson and Jerry Lee Lewis. Their success not only leads to offers from Hollywood and New York, but also the unwanted attention of the FBI.

This biopic has a lot going for it, not the least of which are two likeable leads and a great soundtrack, but it’s hampered by the cookie-cutter approach taken by writer Andy Wolk and director Matt Dorff. With more stock footage than an Ed Wood film and a pedestrian narration that telegraphs each plot point, Mr. Rock 'n' Roll: The Alan Freed Story can’t even elicit some excitement from its musical numbers. Featuring the original recordings of Little Richard, Bill Haley and Jerry Lee Lewis, the recreations of these acts are let down by poor staging and even worse lip-syncing, though Leon fares better than most as Jackie Wilson. Guest appearances by Bobby Rydell and Fabian as concerned parents fall flat, while Paula Abdul makes a brief appearance delivering lines as if she’s in a Chekov play.

 

In 1957, Alan Freed starred in the similarly titled Mister Rock and Roll. Containing a little bit of Freed’s backstory, the film primarily had the disc jockey at his radio station introducing music clips of Chuck Berry, Little Richard and others. American Hot Wax was a slight improvement and this biopic adds a bit more meat to the bones. Nevertheless, the advice remains the same. Forget the film, buy the soundtrack.

Judd Nelson, Alan Freed, Leon, Jackie Wilson, James C. Victor
Judd Nelson
Judd Nelson

as Alan Freed

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Leon
Leon

as Jackie Wilson

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James C. Victor
James C. Victor

as Jerry Lee Lewis

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Walter Franks
Walter Franks

as Little Richard

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Jerry Lee Lewis, Walter Franks, Little Richard, Michael Dunston, Bo Diddley

Despite ending the film with Alan Freed defiantly telling his listeners he never took a bribe, the famed disc jockey did plead guilty to two counts of commercial bribery in 1962.

There is no doubt that Freed played for pay… Freed made a “new arrangement” with four distributors of the records he would play on his radio and television programs. From the new releases his clients sent, Freed would select a “Pick of the Week,”  “Sleeper of the Week,” and a “Spotlight of the Week.” To cover his tracks, he asked that future payments be made in cash.

All Shook Up: How Rock 'n' Roll Changed America
By Glenn C. Altschuler

LeRoy D. Brazile, Frankie Lymon, Michael Daingerfield, Bill Haley

Though there is a depiction of Alan Freed acting in a movie, the scene featuring him and Little Richard in a jail cell appears in none of his films.