Mr. Rock'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story

Mr. Rock'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story (1999)
Eagle Rock Entertainment
Cast: Judd Leson, Paula Abdul, Madchen Amick

Though this film about the life of Alan Freed is already a decade old, his story is a worthy reminder as it seems only the Boomers, the former greasers, the old doo wop, blues and early R&B followers—in addition to serious music aficionados—are able to cue up the man's name within their memory banks. Criminal to see recent generations using the term "rock 'n roll" bearing no sense of history of its derivation…

Alan Freed, also known by his on-air handle "Moondog," was one of America's first disc jockey personalities. Though Freed might've endorsed the free-speech latitude bendings of Howard Stern simply on principle, the latter owes everything to the former as Alan Freed not only coined the buzzword slang "rock 'n roll," he broke barriers not even Stern can lay claim to. Had Freed not watched his blue suede shoe empire crumble down around him in the midst of a McCarthy-inspired witch hunt, perhaps he would've lived a bit longer to enjoy the legacy he helped create through will and determination to change the course of music history.

Indeed there'd unlikely be an Aerosmith or AC/DC without Alan Freed's crusade to break the stifling walls of the Pat Boone, Perry Como and Dean Martin safeness shielding White America of the 1950's. The fact Freed had the audacity to push for mainstream play of influential black musicians into the ears of an intolerant nation of segregationists makes the flatulence and toilet humor of Howard Stern seem insignificant in the history of broadcast radio. People may want to both crucify and sustain Stern for his outspoken candor, yet it was Alan Freed who paid Stern's dues with far higher stakes involved.

"Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story" attempts to clear Freed's name of swirling accusations he took payola from record labels for spinning 45 records of their artists, many of them future greats and Rock 'n Roll Hall of Famers like Freed himself. Freed attested in reality and on-film he never spun a record on his shows he didn't like. Played impressively by Judd Nelson, the tough guy grit from "The Breakfast Club" swaps his leather and denim for Freed's plaid-patterned tweed jacket.

The payola controversy is speculated in "Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story" as coming from a business associate with reported ties to the mob. As Freed asks for a loan from his well-established partner (also one of the owners of a major record label of the fifties) for a down payment on his lavish Connecticut house in order to preserve his second marriage to Marjorie Hess (played here by Madchen Amick), Freed's name later comes up in the payola scandal.

At the time of the payola inquisition, Freed had launched a revue tour of the U.S. featuring some of the biggest names of the day including Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley & the Comets and Jackie Wilson which ended on a sour note when police at the Boston gig demanded the wildly-crazed and dancing fans return to their seats. Though "Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story" downplays this incident with the absenteeism of a famous Freed quote "the police don't want you to have any fun," the writing etches itself on the wall at this point in the film's story.

It has already spent plenty of time getting the audience into the life of a divorced Freed in Cleveland, making his mark at the conservative radio station WJW where his hour nighttime slot is expanded upon overnight popularity. The film takes us into Freed's swirling, tango-lassoed romance with Marjorie Hess (who may or may not've been the burning love of his life considering he was married a third time to Inga Bolingwhom until his passing in 1965) straight into Manhattan and a literal gate crashing with his ascension up the major league totem with WINS and ultimately WABC.

Nelson pulls down Freed's headbobbing, cowbell-clanging shtick as he rises to prominence on both the audile and viewing airwaves in addition to making a slew of Hollywood movies such as "Rock Rock Rock," "Mr. Rock 'n Roll," "Don't Knock the Rock" and "Rock Around the Clock."

The film introduces "Mr. Excitement" Jackie Wilson as one of Alan Freed's biggest benefactors and celebrity friends, one of the more prominent figures of the movie. We see Nelson's Freed in the company of a young, bouncy Little Richard and an up-and-coming Bo Diddley, the latter guitar legend being the scorn of a handful of Freed's tragically racist listeners. Despite the overwhelming popularity of black artists crossing over into the mainstream throughout the fifties, the hopeless message is that corporate and political America saw no end in sight to "rock 'n roll" despite protestations of sexual overtones in the lyrics. Thus if they had to live with it, the deliverers of the apocalypse at least ought to be of their own skin. Refer to the Frankie Lymon story well-executed in this film.

"Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story" also gets things right by having Nelson portray Alan Freed as a champion of a neglected and shunned race who made their labels money yet saw little of it themselves. Frequently the film shows Freed's disdain for bigotry, going so far as to drink from the same glass and puff on the same cigarette as Jackie Wilson, merely to antagonize a pair of racists loudly voicing their crude opinions in their midst.

If there's any detriment to "Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story," it's the sometimes lame lip synching to original music tracks from Buddy Holly, Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bo Diddley which dumbs down the momentum. The Bo Diddley segment where the actual studio recording plays while the film's Bo and his cohorts attempt to wow Alan Freed is cheesy since it's quite apparent more instruments appear in the recorded version. Ditto for Buddy Holly (who carries a five 'o clock shadow in the film) in an especially hammy sequence where Holly tantalizes everyone in the room to "Peggy Sue" by moving all over the room and sliding on his back, all with the original reverb hardly indicative of what would project in said room. The portrayal of Jerry Lee Lewis is more concentrated on getting The Killer's stage-flung chaos replicated to such reckless abandon the vocal marks are frequently missed in the process.

Though Alan Freed was wronged in this life simply for having the wherewithal to introduce music to a widespread audience—particularly teenagers of the day sick from big band and bobbysoxer hangover—his legacy is marked on a daily basis since at least one of out five people in this country use or think of the term "rock 'n roll" on a daily basis. "Mr. Rock 'n Roll: The Alan Freed Story" leaves us on the dramatic departure of Freed on his final broadcast at WABC, which in real life was due to Freed's refusal to sign a document stating he'd taken payola, an important fact this film should've been more proactive in relaying.

It does, however, feature a decent cameo by Paula Abdul, as Denise, whom Freed is attracted to after reviewing her demo 45 and falls into a brief affair with when Marjorie begins to ostracize him in response to his continuous pursuit of rock 'n roll glory. Whether or not Alan Freed actually cheated on Marjorie in real life is perhaps conjecture as it's also an unnecessary bit of Hollywood fluff.

The film omits the last six years of Freed's life following his ejection from prime time television, radio and the touring circuit. The film does make a smart note how Dick Clark and American Bandstand usurped all which Freed created and went on to enjoy decades of success thereafter. No disrespect intended towards nice guy Clark, but you have to wonder if the indignation of having a squeaky clean emcee steal his spotlight didn't contribute to Alan Freed's death.

If you make it out to the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, do yourself a big favor after checking out this mostly entertaining film, and pay close attention to the Alan Freed exhibit which is adjacent to a very lengthy Les Paul Shrine. Like Paul, Alan Freed was an innovator and a figurehead of his era, yet time has nearly rubbed his name out much as the FBI all but did with their trumped charges. Suffice it to say, there's no one quite like the Moondog, who, for the record, was sued for usage to the name by another and like everything else Alan Freed built, was lost to him. Some folks are cursed as much as they are blessed.