American Hot Wax

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"1959. New York City. The battleground was Rock and Roll. It was the beginning of an era. You shoulda been there."
  • PG
  • 1978
  • 6.9  (1,330)

American Hot Wax is a semi-fictionalized account of the birth of rock & roll in the late 1950s. The movie opens with a title card that reads, "This is the story of Alan Freed," establishing the character of the famed disc jockey as the film's central figure. Alan Freed is played by Tim McIntire, who does an admirable job of portraying one of rock & roll's key tastemakers.

We meet Freed in the mid-1950s, when he's a DJ at a small-time Cleveland radio station. He's playing rhythm and blues records by artists like Little Richard and Fats Domino, but he's frustrated that the music isn't catching on with white audiences. One day, he hits upon the idea of promoting a live rock & roll concert that will bring together a variety of R&B and rock acts in one place. It's a risky venture, but Freed is convinced that he can make it work.

The film follows Freed as he puts together the concert, which he calls the "Rock and Roll Jubilee." We see him deal with various obstacles along the way, from persuading reluctant artists to perform to navigating the maze of local regulations that govern public events. Along the way, we get glimpses of the emerging rock & roll scene, with its wild music, its untamed energy, and its racially mixed fan base.

One of the film's strengths is its ability to capture the excitement and chaos of the rock & roll scene at its inception. We see young people dancing in the aisles, screaming and fainting at the sight of their favorite stars. We see musicians like Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, who bring a raw, primal energy to their performances. And we see the authorities, who view the rock & roll scene as a threat to public order and seek to shut it down.

The movie's cast is comprised of a mix of established actors and relative unknowns, with a few future stars thrown in for good measure. Fran Drescher (in one of her earliest roles) plays Joey, a fan of rock & roll who becomes close with Freed. She gives a strong performance, imbuing her character with a sense of innocence and wonder. Jay Leno (also in one of his earliest roles) plays Mookie, a DJ who works with Freed and provides a comic foil to his boss. McIntire, for his part, is the emotional core of the movie, conveying Freed's love for the music and his desire to see it succeed.

The film is directed by Floyd Mutrux, who is perhaps best known for his work on the 1978 movie The Buddy Holly Story. Like that film, American Hot Wax is a celebration of rock & roll and its pioneers. Mutrux does an excellent job of creating a vivid sense of time and place, immersing the audience in the world of 1950s America. He also manages to wrangle the movie's many subplots and characters, giving each its due without losing sight of the bigger picture.

Overall, American Hot Wax is an enjoyable film that transports the viewer back to a pivotal moment in the history of music. It captures the spirit of rock & roll at its inception, when it was still a raw, unpredictable force on the cultural landscape. With its strong performances, snappy dialogue, and energetic pacing, it's a movie that will appeal to anyone with an interest in the music and the era that spawned it.

American Hot Wax
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  • IMDB Rating
    6.9  (1,330)