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|'SUN RECORDS' REVIEWED
February 24, 2017 - Various / Elvis Express Radio
SEASON 1, EPISODE 1 - 706 UNION
A new drama meanders through the nascent careers of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, and Ike Turner —
starring Chad Michael Murray as legendary producer Sam Phillips
“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
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.
SEASON 1, EPISODE 1 - 706 UNION
TAMPA BAY TIMES
CMT's 'Sun Records' can't live up to legacy of Elvis, Cash and more
Sam Phillips was an early pioneer for rock 'n' roll and — if you believe CMT's new scripted series Sun Records — the drugs and sex, too.
You know the names: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. And perhaps you already know the story. The four musicians walk into Phillips' recording studio
for an impromptu jam session on Dec. 4, 1956, and solidify a new sound of music that still resonates 60 years later. But CMT's eight-part drama based on the Broadway musical
Million Dollar Quartet just doesn't live up to the legends' legacies.
Sun Records sure takes its time introducing each familiar face. It begins in Memphis, Tenn., in 1950, when Phillips (One Tree Hill's Chad Michael Murray) opens his recording
studio and begins finding the voices of what would become the early sound of rock 'n' roll. We meet Presley and Lewis as lovesick high school boys who play different games to get
the girl, and Cash as he's about to leave to serve overseas. But in the four episodes provided to critics, we still haven't really met Perkins.
While the show mostly focuses on Phillips (and Murray's ridiculously heavy Southern drawl), it's the obviously inexperienced newcomers playing the quartet who unfortunately carry
the weight of the show. For example, Drake Milligan, who plays Presley, is more like the John Stamos' Elvis impression on Full House but not as charming.
The show has six years of backstory to get through, and it's severely lacking in musical numbers, which are some of the show's best scenes. Records also stumbles on finding the
right tone. It's a wholesome afterschool-special biopic mixed with a soapy night-time drama. And while we need the context of the segregated South, most of the time the overt
racism is gratuitous.
However, the show does something absolutely right: adding the influential sounds of artists B.B. King, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters and Fats Domino. But with so many stories to tell,
Sun Records loses focus. Hopefully, it's worth all the sloppiness to see the foursome do what they do best: play the music.
SEASON 1, EPISODE 1 - 706 UNION
‘Sun Records’: Elvis Presley as the Captain America of Rock
CMT is selling Sun Records as the saga of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis as the revolutionary first generation of rock ‘n’ roll, but the show is really about Sam
Phillips, founder of the record label that recorded them all — Sun Records — in 1950s Memphis. Phillips is played by Chad Michael Murray as a poor and stubborn innovator,
determined to build a company around a new sound that would combine black rhythm and blues with white country music to forge both an art form and a money-maker.
Related: Chad Michael Murray on Playing ‘Big Personality’ Sam Phillips on ‘Sun Records’
Based loosely on the hit Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet, Sun Records takes its very leisurely time getting to the exciting, rock ‘n’ roll part of this drama. As though the
producers were mounting a musical version of The Avengers, we get the stories of all the principals. Elvis (Drake Milligan) — the eventual Captain America of rock ‘n’ roll, straight-
edged and noble — is a poor, shy Mississippi farm boy whose mother, Gladys, sees his potential early on. Jerry Lee (Christian Lees) is a cocky Louisiana piano player who pounds
out tunes with the cautious encouragement of his highly religious cousin Jimmy (Jonah Lees). Johnny Cash (Kevin Fontaine) is an aimless Arkansas rebel who enlists in the Air
Force and is stationed in Germany.
Meanwhile, Sam Phillips is back at the ramshackle Memphis Recording Service, trying to make a go of it without much success. The TV show plays up a hazy historical fact — that
Sam probably had an affair with his office assistant, Marion Keisker (Margaret Anne Florence). She is more firmly embedded in history as the person who first noticed Elvis’s star
potential when he wandered into Sun Records to record a birthday song for his mom.
I should say that this last detail has not yet been dramatized in Sun Records in the four episodes made available to critics — as I said, the pace of this show about lively music is
really slow. It is also so light on context that I cannot imagine what viewers who are unfamiliar with 1950s rock will make of it. Will the audience for Sun Records realize, just to take
one example, that Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousin is the nascent Jimmy Swaggart, soon to become one of the most prominent conservative televangelists ever?
Mike & Molly’s Billy Gardell dominates a lengthy subplot about a blustery carnival barker who’ll become Col. Tom Parker, the eventual manager of Elvis. But here, he’s just a hustler
who lucks into managing the career of Eddy Arnold (Trevor Donovan), a smooth-voiced crooner who deserves better than to be portrayed as a mere goody-goody pushed aside
for the rock revolution. By the fourth episode, Parker isn’t anywhere near Elvis yet — he’s just signed up Hank Snow, played by the excellent singer Pokey LaFarge, and again, Sun
Records gives no context for Snow, a great Canadian country star, billed as “the Singing Ranger.” He and Arnold are rendered as mere yokels who must give way to the rise of
rock ‘n’ roll — and that just ain’t the way it happened, kids.
The show tries to be mindful of the racial aspects of this history. The fourth member of what would become the Million Dollar Quartet — Carl Perkins — doesn’t even appear in the
episodes I’ve seen. Instead, we get the story of how Ike Turner (Kerry Holliday) — now a villain in history for his spousal abuse of Tina Turner, but at this point in his life a vital,
imaginative musician — recorded the song “Rocket 88” in 1951 with his band the Kings of Rhythm. His glory was robbed when Chess Records released it under the name of the
song’s vocalist, Ike’s saxophonist Jackie Brenston, and the band was renamed the Delta Cats. You’d never guess from this show that “Rocket 88” is frequently considered the first
hit in the then-new genre dubbed rock ‘n’ roll.
Repetitious (okay, we get it: Sam Phillips had an unhappy marriage and made out with Marion as frequently as possible) and clumsy as it lurches from one disparate subplot to
another, Sun Records is such a slow burn it’s kind of a fizzle.
SEASON 1, EPISODE 1 - 706 UNION
‘Sun Records’ review: Bold and ambitious, yet messy
WHAT IT’S ABOUT In the 1950s, Sam Phillips’ Sun Records studio in Memphis was the epicenter of what would become rock and roll. The Sun era peaked on Dec. 4, 1956 with a
meeting of the “Million Dollar Quartet” — Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins — in the modest storefront building, but it was a long, tough climb for
everyone involved to get to that point.
“Sun Records” tells the stories of the climb — more or less — of those stars, of Phillips and his friends and family, country singer Eddy Arnold and his manager Col. Tom Parker, as
well as how their paths intersected with B.B. King, Ike Turner, and even Lewis’ cousin Jimmy Swaggart. And because “Sun Records” is set in the midst of the early days of the civil
rights movement, there are plenty of clashes over race, the changing dynamic between the races and how those conflicts helped fuel the music that Sam Phillips was drawn to the
most. “The way I see it, music ain’t got no color,” he says early on in the eight-part miniseries. “Good music is going to find good people.”
MY SAY “Sun Records” is as bold and ambitious as the musical era that inspired it. And just like that era, it’s also messy, often unfocused, sometimes jarring and not always
Chad Michael Murray creates a charismatic Sam Phillips in all his messed-up glory. For every moment where his production prowess is on display — like when he helps shape the
song “Rocket 88” into a hit for Jackie Brenston & His Delta Cats, while also removing songwriter Ike Turner as lead singer — there are several moments where his drug addiction
and drinking problems are showcased. While Murray nails the mannerisms of a driven producer hooked on finding new, exciting acts to record, the recurring “woe is me”
confessions about how his wife and his girlfriend/assistant don’t understand him ring hollow after a while.
“Sun Records” bounces between the Phillips story and the tales of the other stars in the early rock constellation, often with jolting frequency. After all, the origin stories of a teenage
Elvis, an even younger Jerry Lee and Johnny Cash just as he enlists in the Air Force are oddly similar, using music as an escape from difficult home lives with absent or cruel
fathers, though that may not necessarily be true. All three also find themselves caught up in the cultural clashes associated with the start of the civil rights movement.
Young Elvis, played endearingly by newcomer Drake Milligan, loses his high school girlfriend once he starts attending services at a black church in Memphis because he likes the
music and the preaching better.
Cash, played with likable aloofness by Kevin Fonteyne, has an even more memorable run-in with his father about a black family moving in down the road from them. When Cash’s
father throws a tantrum and utters a racial slur, one of several thrown around in the series, it shocks more than the rifle shot he angrily fires.
Though the miniseries is based on the Tony-winning Broadway musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” music isn’t the show’s main focus, even though all the leads sing their own songs.
Sure, it’s understandable that CMT wants to make the mini series interesting to non-music fans, but a little more music is what would take “Sun Records” from good to great.
BOTTOM LINE More soap opera than documentary, but there’s still a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on in this tale of the birth of rock and roll.
SEASON 1, EPISODE 1 - 706 UNION
Sun Records’ needs to pick up the pace to really rock
Are you ready for the devil’s music?
CMT’s new scripted drama “Sun Records,” based on the musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” re-creates the rise of the fabled recording outfit and the stars who got their breaks there,
including Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Ike Turner and more.
It features some outstanding performers as the young lions before they were icons. The look and sound seem genuine, but the storytelling is repetitive.
In 1950, Sam Phillips (Chad Michael Murray, “One Tree Hill”) is looking for a new start and moves his family from Nashville to open the Memphis Recording Service — $3.98 for
studio time and one complimentary pressed disc — but he really is scouring for a new sound to promote.
“Good music is going to find good people,” he says.
His multiple vices — alcohol, pills and women — set up roadblocks to success.
The notorious Col. Tom Parker (Billy Gardell, “Mike & Molly”) works an Alabama state fair in a booth with dancing ducks. (Oh, it’s just as horrible as you can imagine.)
The colonel talks about himself in the third person but is a ruthless promoter and savvy merchandiser.
And with every bite, the colonel takes two for himself.
In one stunt for Eddy Arnold (Trevor Donovan, “90210”), he pays several radio stations to play Arnold’s latest single at precisely 2:10 p.m. In the middle of tense record
negotiations in an afternoon meeting, he turns on the radio and flips the dial to make a point to the label.
High school student Elvis (Drake Milligan) has a doting mother, an abusive father and is a scandal to the community because he would rather attend services at the black
churches, for the music.
“The way they sing it, it makes you shudder and shake, right down to your toes,” he later tells his girlfriend.
“Sun Records” drives home how much of the new sound was born in the black community.
John Cash (Kevin Fonteyne, “Melissa & Joey”) — the Johnny will come later — is a serious young man who disappoints his family by leaving the farm for the military.
Cousins Jerry Lee Lewis (Christian Lees) and Jimmy Swaggart (Christian’s twin, Jonah Lees) egg each other in juvenile stunts as Jerry Lee starts to teach himself how to play the
The young actors are cannily cast and do not go for caricatures. Wisely, they suggest; viewers will do the rest of the work in connecting them to the men who became world-famous.
Still, the story dawdles. Almost every Elvis scene in the first three episodes hits the same point, just told in different settings. Given the show’s pace, we would seem to be several
seasons away from the legendary “Million Dollar Quartet” recording session with Elvis, Cash, Lewis and Carl Perkins.
When it comes to “Sun Records,” the hook is there, but it can’t sustain the beat.