Thursday, July 2, 2009

"Mr. Rock N Roll," "Sports Night"

"Mr. Rock N Roll," a 1999 TV-movie about Akron/Cleveland/music legend Alan Freed, arrives on DVD on Tuesday. A column I wrote about the movie -- and about a snide reference to Akron on "Sports Night" -- is after the jump. I've also posted an interview with Judd Nelson, who played Freed.Here is the column:
Akron is becoming the new Cleveland. And not in a good way.
Much the way Cleveland was once the butt of national jokes, Akron has taken two shots in prime time this week.
First was on Sports Night, which had a character saying carriage rides were in only "if you're from Akron."
On Sunday night, the NBC movie Mr. Rock 'N' Roll: The Alan Freed Story has legendary disk jockey Freed declaring, "Cleveland wasn't the big time but it was better than Akron."
There's a faint historical justification for the line, since Freed (played by Judd Nelson) worked in Akron before moving up to Cleveland and later New York City. But it's still a slap at Akron made worse by the disparaging of Cleveland.
In radio in the '50s, Cleveland was the big time, where a radio station's playing a new record would inspire other stations around the country to follow suit. But that's just one of the many ways Mr. Rock 'N' Roll rewrites or invents Freed's story, from the anachronistic use of songs to fictionalizing the names of radio stations. Besides, Cleveland is played by Toronto.
Most of the effort in the movie seems to have gone into staging a few musical numbers where modern actors mime to vintage rock and roll tracks (by Jackie Wilson, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and others). The rest of it looks hasty, sloppy and under-budgeted.
If you want to see Alan Freed as a mythic figure, your time's better spent hunting for American Hot Wax, a 1978 big-screen effort with Tim McIntire as Freed, the real Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, and a young actor named Jay Leno.
Mr. Rock 'N' Roll is just one of several looks at Northeast Ohio in recent days.
This week also included the 20/20 portrait of Audrey Iacona, the Granger Township woman convicted of involuntary manslaughter in the 1997 death of her newborn son. Iacona, also the subject of a Dateline NBC profile in March, was treated very well by 20/20 -- appearing as a combination of Britney Spears and Joan of Arc.
Next week, PBS's Nova will offer yet another TV look at the notorious Sam Sheppard case. WVIZ (Channel 25) will air Nova at 9 p.m. Tuesday followed by a one-hour special Feagler & Friends on the Sheppard case; WNEO/WEAO (Channels 45/49) will carry Nova at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday.
A science series, Nova shows how forensic science has been used in an effort to solve the 1954 murder in Bay Village of Sheppard's wife Marilyn, or at least to determine Sheppard's guilt or innocence in the case. That's an ongoing effort that included the recent exhumation and re-examination of Mrs. Sheppard's body.
Nova spends a lot of time rehashing old information but does consider the scientific issues in more detail than some other Sheppard programs.
DNA evidence extracted from blood at the crime at first seemed to point to another suspect, Richard Eberling. "But it turns out that the evidence against Eberling is far weaker than it initially appears," the program's narrative says, nor did all the blood evidence rule out Sheppard's involvement.
Terry Gilbert, attorney for Sheppard's son, Sam Reese Sheppard, nonetheless went to the news media to spin the findings to his favor, a move the documentary says backfired. In the most dramatic scene in the program, Stephanie Tubbs Jones, then the Cuyahoga County prosecutor, tears into Gilbert and his supposed evidence.
The program ends with the plan to exhume Mrs. Sheppard's body, but with no definitive conclusion on who killed her. Which is pretty much the way things have been for decades.
All things considered, Northeast Ohio probably doesn't need all this attention, especially if it's distorting history and showcasing brutal crimes. We could keep TV producers from crossing into Ohio -- but they'd just use Canada as a substitute.

And here is the Nelson interview:
When Alan Freed died in 1965 at the age of 43, he was, in journalist John Morthland's words, "a poor man, unemployed and unemployable."
The former Akron and Cleveland disc jockey had been driven out of the radio business during the payola scandals of the late '50s and early '60s, when he was the most visible entrepreneur caught taking money from record companies in exchange for playing their tunes on the air.
But Freed has maintained a claim to fame, not just in Northeast Ohio but around the world, as one of the key figures in bringing black music known as rhythm and blues to a white, teen-age audience under a new name: rock and roll.
However dishonored he was in his time, Freed has an honored place in rock history, including posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its first year, a major biography in 1991 (Big Beat Heat: The Alan Freed Story, by John M. Jackson) and, at 9 p.m. Sunday, an NBC TV movie, Mr. Rock 'N' Roll: The Alan Freed Story.
Based on press materials about the movie, it's going to look especially closely at Freed as a force for social change, from his playing of black music on the radio in Cleveland and later New York City to his battles with ABC after singer Frankie Lyman danced with a white girl on a Freed-hosted TV show.
That fits in with other recent NBC successes, including The Temptations and The '60s, which blended social issues with nostalgic soundtracks. Mr. Rock 'N' Roll uses about 20 vintage recordings, from Buddy Holly, the Clovers, Moonglows and other artists.
(It also, probably not coincidentally, sticks the knife into CBS by getting on the air before that network's four-hour, birth-of-rock movie Shake, Rattle & Roll arrives in November.)
Judd Nelson, who plays Freed, was only 5 years old when the DJ died but was aware of him even before making the movie.
"I'm a big blues fan," Nelson said during a recent telephone interview. "And I knew that he was one of the few people that helped kick-start (radio) integration."
Indeed, Nelson believes that Freed's later troubles were a result of his stand against racism.
"A lot of disc jockeys were guilty of payola, but only one was drummed out of the business," Nelson said with a touch of hyperbole. "The reason must be in his social positions. He created a lot of enemies by not seeing color in music. Other people didn't want the races mixing."
Indeed, Morthland -- writing in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll -- has said, "Playing black music by itself did not make Freed such a revolutionary figure; any number of black DJs . . . were already doing that. Freed was, however, among the first to program black music for a white audience, and for this he . . . suffered legal harassment well before his fall in the payola hearings."
Nelson was intrigued by playing Freed, so much so that he went to work on the movie within days of finishing another project. He scrambled to research Freed via the Internet and studied surviving film of Freed. To be ready, he said, "sleep was getting sacrificed."
Besides, Nelson said, "I like working." Since getting out of the series' grind by leaving Suddenly Susan earlier this year, he's worked on about seven projects, from the Freed movie to independent films to a Spin and Marty revival movie for ABC.
And in researching Freed, he found someone with plenty of flaws, from hard drinking to a hard-driving business sense.
"Any ambitious guy is going to overlook things," Nelson said. "In his case, he sacrificed his family for his career. But he had had that car crash (in 1950) and the doctors told him if he didn't smoke and drink, he might have another 10 years. So he thought he had a lot shorter time to accomplish things than most people."
Nelson said his performance is not a mimicking of Freed, who called himself "King of the Moondoggers" on the air and whose '50s radio style might sound grating to '90s ears. But it was still a kick to step back in time when the movie was being shot in Toronto.
Now, he said, he'd like to get back to Cleveland to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. His one trip to the city included a visit to another local landmark: Jacobs Field -- which he loved.
Of course, he had some mixed feelings about the team that plays there. Born and raised in Maine, Nelson is a longtime Red Sox fan

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