“American Hot Wax” may not be totally accurate (it’s not) but it does capture the favor, the spirit, the recklessness and the music of the early days of Rock and Roll. It does this through an excellent performance by Tim McIntire and the music by many of the great artists of the day including Frankie Ford, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Kenny Vance, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. The films center is Alan Freed credited incorrectly with coining the phrase rock n roll, a term whose original meaning was a slang term for sexual intercourse and had been used in a few songs going as far back a 1922*. Freed started in Cleveland, put on live shows, moved to New York on 1010 WINS then to WABC Radio before being fired when he refused to sign a statement certifying he never accepted a payola payment. Payola was rampant with DJ’s throughout the U.S. but Freed was one of the main targets, and a symbol of investigators and whose career would suffer the most. After he was fired by WABC, Freed never was able to find work with a major radio station again but like the screen Alan Freed tells the police toward the end of the movie “you can stop me, but you can never stop rock and roll.”
The movie plays loose with the facts, director Floyd Mutrux admits that he took some artistic license with the storyline in the film including changing the sequential order of Freed’s final days as a New York DJ. The screenplay unfortunately lacks any depth only skimming the surface of Freed’s character also making him much more of a saint than he really was. You don’t learn much about him except for his passionate rebellious love for rock and roll, his willingness to play black music along with the fact that he smoked and drank too much. Mutrux does not even touch on Freed’s sharing of songwriting credit as a form of payment. This co-writing credit was not limited to just Freed, it was common practice among top DJ’s and popular singers. Dick Clark was well known for sharing copyright credit. Even Elvis Presley received songwriting credit receiving royalty for songs like Heartbreak Hotel among others early in his career.
The film gives us a glance of Freed’ s days filled with eager young singers hanging outside the radio station attempting to “audition” for their big break as they sing popular songs of the day, or in a recording studio watching Frankie Ford record his one monster hit, “Sea Cruise”, or watching record producer Richard Perry play a fictitious music producer working with a fictitious doo-wop group (The Planotones lead by Kenny Vance former of Jay and the Americans) recording “Come Go With Me”, a real hit by the Del-Vikings in 1957. The Planotones, as mentioned, started out as a fictitious group for the film. Some years later Vance would reform the group and they have been performing around the country singing doo-wop ever since.
The films real strength is in the performances with McIntire doing a splendid job as Freed and a young Fran Drescher who is engaging as Freed’s high pitched girl Friday. Also in the cast are Lorraine Newman as a Carole King songwriter wannabe and Jay Leno as Mookie, Freed’s chauffeur. Most interesting are the performances by the great Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and the other early rock and roll singers who appear along with the recreation of the Brooklyn Paramount Theater. “American Hot Wax” is a highly enjoyable low budget film.