[Originally published in Movietone News 60-61, February 1979]
For a while there it seemed as if the post-mortems on the summer’s rock-oriented pictures like American Hot Wax and FM were being written before the films’ release, let alone box-office decease. But even if the backers will get to file their tax writeoffs, it’s almost certain that many more patrons got to see these films as second features to Saturday Night Fever and Grease as the big winners moved out to the nabes. Co-features don’t earn their parent companies more than token rentals that way; but if they didn’t make money, at least one of these pictures went on to make a few friends.
American Hot Wax celebrates the last few days of Brooklyn disc jockey Alan Freed’s reign as the king of rock’n’roll and the onset of his martyrdom as r&r’s patron saint. It boasts a solid stellar performance by Tim McIntire (previously seen as the least lovable of Robert Aldrich’s Choirboys), and if he doesn’t manage to save the film, he gives it a much-needed center of gravity. More than that, he strikes such a satisfying behavioral tone that, like the platter-playing paterfamilias himself, he tends to validate the enthusiasm for the music he sponsors and win our indulgence of his co-players’ excesses and director Floyd Mutrux’s miscalculations. William A. Fraker contributes his usual admirably controlled cameraworkâ€”a nice blend of impressionism and ersatz naturalism that evokes Freed’s not-at-all-glamorous milieu with quiet persuasivenessâ€”but too many of McIntire’s fellow performers skittering through the multi-planar compositions fail to convince us they represent a gregarious humanity doing their thing: they’re just a bunch of actors trying on period poses. Still, thanks to McIntire/Freed’s heroic presence, they are at least carelessly acceptable as denizens of a formative rock culture passionately pledged to keep a faith whose scriptures are being written right on the spot.
Such conviction of cause and/or community is mostly specious in FM. Indeed, the various fictional deejay personalities working to sustain the best little rock station in Southern California barely seem part of the same movieâ€”and this even though they are played by such agreeable stalwarts as Eileen Brennan, Alex Karras, Cassie Yates, and Cleavon Little (whose very funny nighttime deejay, The Prince of Darkness, appears to have been markedly reduced in screentime in the last stages of editing). Despite its alphabetical, egalitarian cast listing, FM does have a star. That’s Martin Mull and he’s the star because he turns his every scene into a near-standup-comedy routine played to the audience and not his fellow performers. Whether he does so out of vaulting egocentricity or a sensible showbiz rationalization that the people might as well get something for their money is anybody’s guess.
Both movies are built around as black-and-white a good-guys-and-bad-guys opposition as we’ve seen since Gene Autry rode to the rescue of Radio Ranch. In American Hot Wax Freed and his uniformly clean-cut, music- and life-force-loving kids and colleagues vs. a few venal promoters of (presumably) no-talent imitators and a dyspeptic-looking bunch of D.A.s, cops, narcs, and IRS agents who just can’t stand to see people having a good time. In FM the freely affectionate, music-loving, commercial-break-hating deejays and their loyal, clean-cut public are up against advertising managers, megacorporation execs and spies, and hypocritical military recruiters who smoke grass ostentatiously and hope to use the mystique of FM to dragoon folks into the Armed Services. FM proposes the most preposterous crisis to force the departure of the nice station manager (Michael Brandon), a still more preposterous occupation of the place by the loyal staff, and the utterly preposterous last-minute change of heart on the part of the big bad tycoon (Norman Lloyd) that was probably supposed to play like a Frank Capra finale. American Hot Wax focuses on the actual travails of Alan Freed in 1959 in bringing off a first-anniversary-of-rock’n’roll concert at the Brooklyn Paramountâ€”a triumphant event despite its eventual shutting-down by the forces of repression. (Freed’s subsequent downfall over payola is alluded to, but the nature and degree of his culpability is shiftily euphemized; indeed, this little failing is all but reinterpreted as a virtue at one point.) If Hot Wax comes closer to getting away with its pop-rock populism, it’s because we make allowances for the soft-focus effect of nostalgia even as we note its calculated inclusion in the mix, and becauseâ€”surprise surpriseâ€”they really didn’t manage to kill rock’n’roll just like Alan kept saying they wouldn’t.
It’s also, in just about every department, a much better-made movie than FM. FM marks the directorial debut of ace cinematographer John A. Alonzo, and I am powerless to account for why there should not be a shot worth remembering in the whole film. The nadir of narrative organization is reached during a Linda Ronstadt concert sequence wherein, although our heroes are supposed to be merrily stealing the event as if their little station and not a high-powered competitor were sponsoring it, “host” announcer Eric Swan (Mull) is shot in such abstract space that we can’t begin to guess how the ruse is intended to work. Hot Wax‘s editing also goes belly-up during its concert finale where time-sense is completely lost and Mutrux’s grab-bag endeavor to cut together the energy of the performers onstage, the gathering police storm outside the theater, in the aisles, and backstage, and Freed’s own increasing discomfiture just doesn’t work. But overall coherence is never lost. In fact, the A-B-C clarity of the narrative sequence tends to underscore the simplistic nature of the film concept. (Between records, Freed places a long-distance call to his father to ask why he refuses to accept his son’s gift checks : songwriter Teenage Louise sings her concerned but uncomprehending father one of her lyrics about the way musical hopes and dreams fail to make up for the lack of “you” : Freed is visited by the juvenile president of the Buddy Holly Fan Club and they share a sniffy, perfectly-timed-for-interval reminiscence of the kid’s father’s behavior the day the music died.) But though simplistic and all but styleless once you get past Tim McIntire and the music, American Hot Wax is quite pleasant entertainment, worth sticking around for after the main feature. FM, for all its ingratiating players, is an unredeemable mess that can’t even make it to simplistic.
© 1979 Richard T. Jameson
AMERICAN HOT WAX
Direction: Floyd Mutrux. Screenplay: John Kaye, after a story by John Kaye and Art Linson. Cinematography: William A. Fraker. Art direction: Elayne Barbara Ceder; set decoration: George Gaines. Editing: Danford B. Greene (supervision), Melvin Shapiro, Ronald J. Fagan; montages: Frank Mazzola. Music supervision: Kenny Vance. Production: Art Linson.
The players: Tim McIntire, Fran Drescher, Jay Leno, Laraine Newman; Carl Earl Weaver, Al Chalk, Sam Harkness, Arnold McCuller (The Chesterfields); Jeff Altman, Moosie Drier, John Lehne, Nora Denney, Garry Goodrow, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Direction: John A. Alonzo. Screenplay: Ezra Sacks. Cinematography: David Myers. Production design: Lawrence G. Paull. Editing: Jeff Gourson. Production: Rand Holston, Robert Larson.
The players: Michael Brandon, Eileen Brennan, Alex Karras, Cleavon Little, Martin Mull, Cassie Yates, Tom Tarpey, James Keach, Norman Lloyd, Jimmy Buffet, Linda Ronstadt.