Sunday, 22 May 2011

American Hot Wax revisited (Alan Freed biopic)

Saw American Hot Wax today for the first time in about thirty years. Enjoyable enough, although more bitty than I remembered. There are good moments when Tim McIntyre as Alan Freed shows that the music matters to him, but as the film is given over to a concert after around the one hour point there isn't a lot of time to develop character.

I'd forgotten that there was a female character perhaps loosely based on Carole King, long before Grace of My Heart, and just how stuffed with music the film is - and not always in a good way: there are times you suspect that the continual snatches of disparate songs are a means of distracting you from the absence of anything but the most basic storyline. The film focuses on a very short time in Freed's life - the buildup to, and performance and immediate consequences of, the concert below - and a paragraph at the end tells us of his eventual fate.

 I suppose it didn't help that I was watching a DVD from a well-known auction website which looked and sounded like it was dubbed from a VHS off-air recording, so the experience of the music wasn't always enough in itself to compensate for other shortcomings. (Since then I have seen that it can be bought from the Planetones' website, here, which I presume will offer better technical quality.)

But the film, even if not perfect, is worth seeing for some very good moments which will be immediately understood by other lovers of this music.

For example, about 2.30 in  on the edited clip below, the young boy who is president of the Buddy Holly fanclub blags his way into the radio studio on the date of his late hero's birthday and Freed coaxes answers out of him which make clear the importance of Holly's music; Freed, himself clearly moved, puts on a Holly side which unites man and boy in what can only be termed solitary-but-shared grooving:

And when the Carole King figure is in tears after a long-awaited glorious vindication (an unknown group has just sung her composition onstage to great acclaim), Freed is puzzled until she confides: "I never had anything till I found the music." Neither did I," he tells her.

The image of Freed below, mid-broadcast, comes from a moment cited by Dave Marsh in his entry on There Goes My Baby in The Heart of Rock and Soul. It is worth quoting in full:
In the best scene of American Not Wax, Floyd Mutrux's 1978 film biography of disc jockey Alan Freed, Tim McIntire's Freed, sitting in the studio doing his show, gets a disturbing phone call from his father back in Ohio. When it's over Freed hangs his head in his hands. The engineer reminds him from the other room that it's time for another record. Freed says nothing, just reaches over and cues one up. As it begins playing, he speaks over its intro.

"This is Alan Freed and I love you," he says in a voice husky and mysterious. "You know what -- it's raining in Akron, Ohio .., but it's a beautiful night in New York City. These are the Drifters, and 'There Goes My Baby. ' " He reaches over and turns the record up as loud as it'll go. Suddenly, swirling strings deliver Ben E. King's nasal voice crying, "There goes my baby, movin' on down the line." It's a moment meant to convince you that Freed loves the music not because it's made him rich and famous but because it satisfies something within him. And it succeeds.

Not only Freed but "There Goes My Baby" deserves to be enshrined, for the moment when those strings entered, rhythm and blues took an irrevocable step toward soul music.

This next step in the evolution of record-making made it even more decisively a producer's music, concocted in the studio without much reference to what happened on stage or in doo-wop hallways with perfect echoes. "We were trying to create some kind of collage," Jerry Leiber once said. "We were experimenting because the things that were planned for the date were falling apart . . . Stanley [Applebaum, the arranger] wrote something that sounded like some Caucasian take-off and we had this Latin beat going on this out-of-tune tympani and the Drifters were singing something in another key but the total effect-there was something magnificent about it." After it became a hit, he said, "I'd be listening to the radio sometimes and hear it and I was convinced it sounded like two stations playing one thing."

Leiber is too modest. For what the arrangement really brought forward, by forcing King (in his debut as the Drifters' lead voice) to sing in a key well above his natural range and underpinning the result with SO much pseudo-Tchaikovsky, was an air of abject hopelessness - the same kind of frustrated defeat that Alan Freed might have felt after.talking to his father. The magnificence, I suppose, comes because we've now had thirty years to understand that the song sounds the same on either end of the wire.
You can read more about There Goes My Baby in the first part of a two-part post about Ben E King and the origins of Stand By Me here, which draws from Bill Millar's 1971 book about the Drifters.

Dave Marsh's The Heart of Rock and Soul, with its numerous examples of mini-essays which seemed to get to the core of a song, was a major inspiration for me when posting about doo wop on  the Kewl Steve messageboard. Lex Jansen's website, here, reproduces Marsh's pieces on his top hundred choices - which leaves another 901 waiting between soft covers.

Maybe one reason I remembered the American Hot Wax movie with what may be disproportionate fondness was that around time the film was shown in Glasgow I bought the soundtrack album (on cassette), which also had a big influence on my musical tastes, especially the original oldies side (the other half of the tape was the live concert, with a mix of original acts such as Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee and lightly fictionalised versions of other artists).

It wasn't the first rock'n'roll album I bought - by that time, around 1978 or 1979, I was already familiar with many of the most well known rock'n'rol and doo wop numbers, thanks to the That'll Be the Day and American Grafitti films - but there was perhaps a greater degree of sophistication in some of the choices for American Hot Wax - all credit to Kenny Vance, if he was the one who made the decisions.

Here is the tracklist for the oldies section of the soundtrack album - and as it isn't available on CD, I've assembled it as a playlist for those lucky readers able to access spotify, here.
Chuck Berry - Sweet little sixteen
Jackie Wilson - That's why
The Moonglows - Sincerely
The Drifters - There goes my baby
The Mystics - Hushabye
Buddy Holly - Rave On
Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs - Stay
Little Richard - Tutti frutti
The Cadillacs - Zoom
The Elegants - Little star
The Turbans - When you dance
Bobby Darin - Splish splash
Frankie Ford - Sea cruise
The Spaniels - Goodnight, it's time to go
The album was my first experience of the Drifters' There Goes My Baby and the realisation that doo wop voices could sit within sophisticated arrangements, even if the form was in the process of becoming something else. And even on my little cassette I could hear that the sides had been mastered from good sources and that the compilers or the company had enough money to license what they wanted.

Perhaps Sincerely, with its sudden leap into a freer, looser style of singing -
But I'll never, never, never, nev-ahhh! Le-het her go
made the most impact. Back to Dave Marsh, as quoted in that post about Stand By Me:
For most of its length "Sincerely" might as well be a record by the Mills Brothers or the Ink Spots [...] Only the "vooit-vooit" in the background and a bluesy guitar lick hint that something different might be going on. But, at the conclusion of each verse, the arrangement swings into something more like gospel. This oscillation between church singing and the formalities of Tin Pan Alley-era pop is crucial to the entire ethos of doo wop [...] Sincerely is [...] poised [...] on the fault between profound musical changes. 
No faulting Freed's taste, although I'm reminded of a scene in the film where he's considering buying a mansion of a place. It's made clear through a snooty, English-sounding intermediary that the owner doesn't want to sell to him at any price, which distracts us from the question of just how a deejay might have acquired enough money to keep upping his offer ...

... but according to the wikipedia article on Freed Harvey Fuqua insisted that Freed did in fact write the lyrics for Sincerely (though I don't think Chuck Berry ever said the same about Maybellene, another song on which he is given a credit).

The issue of bribery is lightly touched upon in the film: Freed's lawyer wants him  to sign an affadavit stating he has never accepted money for playing records. Told that four other major deejays have already done so, Freed explains, as to a particularly dimwitted child: "Then they're lying."

There was a more recent (1999) biopic entitled: Mr Rock N Roll: The Alan Freed Story, which I haven't yet seen. It'll be interesting to compare. Meanwhile, if you can acquire a copy of American Hot Wax, preferably high quality from the Planetones' website, there is a fair amount to enjoy, although I don't think I'll be revisiting it any time soon: a film of great moments, perhaps, rather than a great film.

The appearances by Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis in the concert sequence are not wildly exciting (though when I saw it at the Glasgow Film Theatre all those years ago some teddy boys dutifully got up and started jiving for Jerry Lee) and it's a pity that Screaming Jay Hawkins's performance is all but cut out of the movie. But you do get a few very pleasing scenes of fictional doowoppers the Chesterfields singing, and a telling detail which recurs throughout the concert section and indeed closes the film is of a young African American man, looking not unlike Little Richard, wildly beating out one of Richard's songs on an upturned oil drum outside the theatre - for himself, it seems, as much as any spectators.

The FBI agents appointed to bring Freed down see this vision as a warning of what this music could lead to in the nation's youth, but by the end - and especially after the lukewarm performance of Jerry Lee - he seems to represent the essence of rock'n'roll: raw, simple, unstoppable - and forever young.


Despite what I said above, I watched American Hot Wax again a couple of days later - though I admit I fastforwarded through some of the concert performances.

Anyway, the point is I can see I was too harsh in some of the observations above. The film does make sense - and you can see how, even at the very beginning, all the subplots are set in action, ultimately all joined through the connection with Freed: the aspiring songwriter; the group hoping for a break; the kid for whom the music is everything.

And as I said, there are great moments. In addition to the ones already mentioned, the Buddy Holly kid is momentarily in the midst of a group (the Planetones?) singing Hushabye and you can see the pleasure on his face as he sings and fingersnaps along to this rockin' nursery rhyme: finally, the music which has sustained him through records and the radio has finally been made manifest, and he is slap bang in the middle of it.

My cruel (that is to say, non-blog-reading) friend used to say that the occasional episodes of Thunderbirds and other Gerry Anderson series where a child somehow gained entree to Tracy Island (or an equivalent sanctum sanctorum) were a miscalculation. Why should young viewers identify with such interlopers when they were already busy seeing themselves as Scott or Virgil?

Yet somehow that doesn't apply in American Hot Wax: we are the boy, taken up, accepted by the group as, earlier, he was by Freed himself, and going from uncertainty to palpable, glowing delight in about three quarters of a minute. "Get into it," one of the group counsels, and into it is what he indisputably gets:

There are delicate details too: the Carole King singer's mother - not quite visible in the image below - washing up and keeping a wary eye on her daughter teaching her song to the black group in the living room:

And one moment which I remembered from my first viewing of the film: the Carole King-type singer playing and singing Since I Don't Have You at her father with as much regret as anger, as succinct an expression of the generation gap as you could hope to find in a film about this era.

Two small details which, if you know anything about doo wop, tend to suggest that is a film made by people who care. When King-schooled the group, the Chesterfields, listening to the radio in their own place later and hear the Diamonds' Little Darling, one of them says "Hey, they copied that off the Gladiolas." (Dave Marsh's thoughts on the matter here.)

And in the scene where Freed is auditioning acts in his office, on the wall there is a huge photograph of ... the Flamingos.

I still maintain that not every snatch of music is as carefully set up as in, say, American Graffiti but the film does leave you in no doubt of its importance to all the major characters, that it answers something within them which has not found adequate expression before.

I think some reviewers have said it's not much better than the schlocky exploitation movies which Freed made in his heyday. Which is unfair. And yet you could say there is a kind of nod, presumably intentional, in the direction of that much-mocked genre: the FBI figures are clearly the killjoys out to stop the fun and they aren't exactly depicted subtly. But then again, maybe that was more or less the truth: Freed was an important and influential figure whose power over juvenile taste was seen as dangerous.

It's also worth saying that it's not just any old concert which Freed is staging, but the event which turned out to be his last hurrah. So that even if there are some superficial similarities with trashy fifties movies, the difference is that although many scenes in the film make a convincing case for the importance and significance of this music, unlike Rock! Rock! Rock! et al there are no sceptical adults or parents who can be glimpsed unconsciously tapping their toes and starting to come around  to the idea that, shucks, maybe it ain't so bad after all. Iinstead of being co-opted the adults - in the form of the FBI and the sceptical or downright hostile parents - effectively win the day, thus neatly inverting the rock'n'roll movie genre.

 Incidentally, Floyd Mutrux, director of American Hot Wax, is also the writer or cowriter of Million Dollar Quartet, currently playing in London, and Baby It's You - not the John Sayles film but a musical about Florence Greenberg, owner of Scepter / Wand Records, which might or might not make it to London, although I'd like to see it. Have to admit I haven't yet made it to the Albery Theatre after a look at the songs in the Million Dollar Quartet show, although I would like to see what's been made out of the raw material in terms of drama. Listening to the original tapes, the main bit of friction is hearing Jerry Lee, then comparatively untried, straining to prove himself an equal in this company.

These may or may not be the jukebox musicals that some critics have suggested, but whatever they're like, any shows which serve to bring artists like Chuck Jackson and Carl Perkins to a wider public can't be all bad.

Essay on the film by Charles Taylor here

My apologies for not crediting John Kaye, who wrote the screenplay.

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