American Hot Wax
This neglected 1978 American rock & roll film is a historical invocation of legendary deejay Alan Freed's life and cultural impact.
Reviewed by Louis Black, Fri., Sept. 3, 1999
D: Floyd Mutrux (1978); with Tim McIntire, Laraine Newman, Jay Leno, Fran Drescher, Jeff Altman, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Screamin' Jay Hawkins.
This great, neglected American rock & roll film is a historical invocation of legendary deejay Alan Freed's life and cultural impact, poetically condensed into the events of a single week. All the crucial Freed-era issues are raised: Freed's love for rock & roll -- the genre he helped invent the Fifties payola scandals (deejays were taking money to play records), and especially, the consequences of white kids listening to black music. What sets American Hot Wax apart from many other rock films, like The Rose and The Doors, is the overwhelming optimism of the film. It isn't about the end of an era, it's about the beginning. It is not about the bitter disappointment, the impending destruction, or the utter moral corruptness of the music industry. This film loves the music, the business, and the myth of rock & roll. It may be too sentimental (it certainly whitewashes the era), but it makes a point about that period of American culture. McIntire's Freed, haunted by a certain sadness, is exuberantly in love with the music. Having started as a deejay in Cleveland, where he coined the term "rock & roll," he hosts his New York radio show by night. The music is everywhere in this movie. On the way out of the radio station, Freed stops to listen to street-corner bands waiting to catch his ear. During the day, he goes to some Brill-like building loaded with recording studios, where he steps in to inspire bands to perform their best. Record hawkers are everywhere, always hitting him up to play their work. Freed only plays the records he wants to play, the ones he thinks are great. If the record plugger decides to give him something in gratitude, what's wrong with that? Aided by his secretary (Drescher) and chauffeur (Leno), Freed copes with all the pressures of being a leader in the birth of a new culture. At the end of the week, which is the end of the movie, Freed is staging a major rock show with a small army of acts, including Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. The cops hate the show because of the wild way kids get when they hear that music and because it is a racially mixed audience listening to a racially mixed bill.
American Hot Wax is a mythic comic book take on Freed's life and the birth of rock & roll. The stories here aren't suppose to be real, they are suppose to be true. There is a moment where we see the film's characters, one after the other, all over the city, listening to Freed's show and being united in a way, the meeting of a secret widespread organization. My favorite subplot involves a quartet of a cappella African-American street singers who become involved with a Carole King-esque songwriter (Newman). As they practice in the living room, the songwriter's mother nervously stares at the clock in the kitchen. The last thing she needs is her husband to come home to find his daughter entertaining four African-American gentlemen around the piano. The vignettes in the movie ring as true as early rock songs.
McIntire, who is brilliant as Freed in American Hot Wax, killed himself a few years later. Mutrux, who attracted attention with Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971) and aloha bobby and rose (1975), seemed poised for a great career.
I first saw this movie at a drive-in theater in Dallas on a double bill with Jonathan Demme's equally optimistic Citizens Band. In front of us was a pickup truck with a cowboy and his son. After the movie we could hear the father say to his son, "Did you see him, Jerry Lee Lewis? He's the king of rock & roll, the killer."
A few years later at UT, we put on a campus screening of Hollywood Knights (1980, starring Robert Wuhl and featuring the film debut of a young actress named Michelle Pfeiffer), Mutrux's new film, with the filmmaker in attendance. The screening was a disaster. As a result of a similar university screening debacle elsewhere in the country, a multimillion dollar advertising campaign aimed at college kids was scratched. The film didn't do much better in general release. Mutrux disappeared from public view for a decade, and never really fulfilled his early promise.
The other night I watched American Hot Wax again. At the end there was the night and the sound of a drum being played down the street. The music was alive.