TV Review:

Sun Records

(Episode 1: "706 Union")

Reviewed by Nigel Patterson

February 2017

Sun Records telecasts on CMT in the US on Thursday nights (9pm CT) - check your local guide for times

.......Every sound has a story.......

“Be bop boy, we’re going to make us some records”. Sam Phillips to Joe Hill Lewis “the Be-Bop Boy”.

Following ‘so-so’ reviews of the new CMT TV series, Sun Records, EIN’s Nigel Patterson takes an in-depth look at episode 1 and discovers that, in fact, the series has a lot going for it!

First of all, let’s be clear, Sun Records is about exactly that, the birth of Sun Records and Sam Phillips’ dream!

And Sun Records (based on the stage musical Million Dollar Quartet co-written by noted Elvis author Colin Escott who also co-wrote episode 1) is not essentially about what the synopsis on IMDB reductively suggests:

A recreation from one of the world's greatest jam sessions. On December 4th, 1956 Carl Perkins' career was flying high from his hit "Blue Suede Shoes."’ 

Contextually and character wise, the Million Dollar Quartet is a fundamental underlying element of the narrative drive of Sun Records – but it should be noted that an emphasis on Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins could potentially overshadow (acknowledging we are yet to see subsequent episodes in the series) the musically historic importance of other Sun Studio recording artists like the iconic B.B. King, unique Howlin' Wolf and inimitable Charlie Feathers and recordings such as Ike Turner/Jackie Brenston’s Rocket 88.

 

Sun Records is sumptuously filmed and the opening credits sound tracked by A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On are alive and engaging. There is a splendid attention to period detail from the fashions and automobiles to slang and general backdrop. The result is a vividly reflected 1950s southern USA period which allows you to feel the resonance and nuances of southern culture at that time. From the oppressiveness of prison chain gangs to the musical vibrancy of iconic Beale Street, the resulting socio-cultural mosaic is a rich one.
 
The opening (pre-credits) scene to episode 1 doesn't pull any punches. It shows discord in the Presley household with an intoxicated Vernon Presley (it’s the middle of the day) complaining that his son (Elvis) should get a job. When mother Gladys suggests Vernon get a job he retorts with his ‘back being out’.

After Vernon leaves, Gladys reaches for her own bottle of alcoholic spirits as Elvis strums his guitar.

The characters of Vernon and Gladys Presley only appear briefly in episode 1.

The narrative also wastes no time in telegraphing supposedly happily married, family man Sam’s affair with (a very attractive and sultry) Marion Keisker (well played by Margaret Anne Florence), as they hurriedly rearrange their clothes when a local group arrives at the newly opened Sun studio to record. Many fans will be unaware of this liaison which was not widely known for many years.

In another particularly powerful scene Elvis serenades his girlfriend, Trixie Dean (a composite of Elvis’ sweethearts at the time?) with a great rendition of the Patti Page classic, Tennessee Waltz (if only Elvis had formally recorded this song, as stylistically it suited his ballad sensibility!). The serenade does not end well (due to an earlier scene reflecting racial tension).

One of my favorite lines from episode 1 was a response to Johnny Cash’s racist, “commie” hating and grieving father, Roy* (sublimely portrayed by J. Thomas Bailey in an all too short appearance), whose house had been repossessed and sold to Negroes:  

“The banks don’t see so much as black or white but green” (a great observation on a, if not the, fundamental basis of capitalism)

Cash senior’s grief is around the death of Johnny’s brother Jack, which he blames Johnny for.

But Sun Records is full of impressive contrasts. Juxtaposed to the racist element in that scene, when a bored Elvis leaves Gladys in a white folks church and visits a neighboring Black American church with its lively and fun, music oriented focus, he, despite being the only white person there, is warmly welcomed by the congregation.

In an age of increasingly polarised social, cultural and political views, including the worrying eccentricities of ‘Trumpian’ politics, this scene is an uplifting and positive reflection of how (an accepting and tolerant) society should be.

I note that at times, the integrity of the show is compromised by the needs of commercial television, that is, Hollywood’s auto-reflex to over-dramatise incidents to enhance viewer impact. For instance, the characterisation of Marion Keisker is likely to be controversial, while one scene has Elvis and Trixie (AlexAnn Hopkins) careening around Memphis on a motorcycle - a case of creative licence as the period is 1953-54 before Elvis had broken regionally and didn't have the means or access to a motorcycle. The tension in achieving a reasonable balance between the competing needs of reality and entertainment is evident in Sun Records.

While there is plenty of drama in the first episode there is also more than the odd dose of humor - when Sam plays back a song after recording a group, the tape is silent and worried looks abound – until he realises the volume is on zero – crisis averted, much to Marion Keisker’s amusement and the group’s collective relief.

And to add gravitas to a theme, our first (only brief) glimpse of ‘The Killer’, Jerry Lee Lewis (an energetic Christian Lees), is of him closely (read: at point blank range) investigating, in a tactile way, the shapely leg of a young girl.

The characterisations of the primary figures are entertaining. Chad Michael Murray (One Tree Hill) is as charismatic and self-assured as the real Sam Phillips and his wannabe “cuz”, Red, Hot & Blue dj, Dewey Phillips (always under the influence – as someone who hosted a rock ‘n’ roll radio show for nearly 20 years I am surprised I wasn’t allowed to enter the studio and consume a bottle of bourbon during each show like Dewey did – I’m sure many listeners would have said that it improved my on-mic performance), is vibrantly played by Keir O’Donnell.

 
Dewey has some classic lines including: 

“Now we’re going to slow it down a little. So if you want to make a move on your old lady, well now’s the time.”

Billy Gardell (Mike from TV’s popular Mike and Molly and surely The Big Show's long lost brother) is very good as Colonel Tom Parker (“Colonel, not mister”) and his brash, carnival hucksterism and promotional genius (for the time) are quickly on display (‘dancing ducks’ and having a young boy plaster posters of Eddy Arnold over existing posters of the also touring, Bob Wills). When the handsome Eddy Arnold (Trevor Donovan, best known for his role as Teddy Montgomery in the popular teen drama, 90210) asks the Colonel to manage him, the Colonel muses “I’d have to give up the ducks”.

How the Colonel ‘cons’ a noticeably hearing impaired local record store owner to stock records of his new artist, Eddy Arnold, is priceless!

Kevin Fonteyne nicely captures Johnny Cash's vocal inflections but his physical resemblance is dissimilar.

I obviously have to say something about neo-newcomer Drake Milligan as the young adult Elvis (Milligan previously portrayed Elvis in the 2014 little known short film, Nobody). OK the physical resemblance isn’t great, but Milligan is a skilled actor who appropriately (and deftly) projects Elvis as a young artist with a passion for music, and crucially, suffuses him with a sense of vulnerability. When Sam Phillips intersected with Elvis he was raw and passionate about his craft, so it is fitting that Elvis in Sun Records is played by a talented, but comparatively raw, up and coming, artist.

 

The supporting cast are uniformly strong and are assisted by a robust script which oozes quality in every scene.

Given the emphasis in episode 1 is naturally on Sam Phillips/Sun Records, in order to set the core around which the series revolves, it will be interesting to see how the Elvis and other Million Dollar Quartet characters develop in subsequent episodes.

 
Not surprisingly, the music in Sun Records is strong, a heady mix of country, gospel, blues and rockabilly. It is neatly included in the narrative at regular intervals, albeit as incomplete (too brief) songs. Offering the occasional full recording would be a positive in subsequent episodes – the story is obviously a great one but underpinning the story is what it is all about – the music!

In episode 1 of Sun Records we learn a lot about the driving core and appeal of rock ‘n’ roll music - as Sam Phillips incisively comments, "music ain't about the words", it's not about the melody, it’s about “just throwin’ down”!

While watching Sun Records it is not lost on the viewer that Sam Phillips was a musical visionary – a recording genius, bereft of colour prejudice ("music hasn't got no color"), whose ear for music and talent in a conservatively tagnant industry ripe for change, would be causal in facilitating a breathtaking new sound to transform not only popular music but also facilitate a burgeoning youth culture through the right stimulus - rock ‘n’ roll, spearheaded by its laser point, Elvis.

Parents take note! Sun Records is not for the younger audience - episode 1 climaxes (pun intended).......as Marion's dress falls to the floor, Sam removes her bra and drops to his knees, before they couple (naked) on a chair in the reception area of the Memphis Recording Service.

Verdict: Despite having read several ordinary reviews of the show, I thoroughly enjoyed the first episode of Sun Records (it has a greater spark than the similarly excellent, but snail paced plotted, 1990 series, Elvis). Director Roland Joffé has effected a tightly orchestrated, intriguing, interesting and well rounded debut episode, and encouragingly, nicely set the scene for future episodes to explore what Sam Phillips, Sun Records and the Million Dollar Quartet are about to achieve. Going by reviews of those who have seen the first four episodes (released to commercial reviewers) I may be in for a letdown as Sun Records progresses. I hope not, as the first episode is more than impressive (and while I suspect the show's appeal to a wide audience is problematic it should perform well on the CMT network).

 

TV Review / Spotlight by Nigel Patterson
-Copyright EIN March 2017
EIN Website content © Copyright the Elvis Information Network.

Go here to YouTube clip 'Meet The Characters of Sun Records'

* Biographies of Johnny Cash cite his father as being named Ray(mond), begging the question of why the producers decided to use "Roy" for the series?

Trivia note: Sam Phillips was the first person to establish an all-female radio station (WHER), yet another symbol of his progressive genius.

Trivia note: In 2003 Memphis Recording Service (Sun Studio), located at 706 Union Avenue in Memphis, was officially recognized as a National Historic Landmark tourist attraction.

Comment on this review

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