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TV Review: ‘Sun Records’ on CMT

Variety logo Variety 2/20/2017 Sonia Saraiya
© Provided by Variety

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.

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