On 17 March
‘78 was a busy year for music movies, with numerous films released that are still – with varying degrees of affection - remembered today. But while Saturday Night Fever, The Rutles’ All You Need Is Cash, The Wiz and even Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band retain their interest, March 1978 brought another piece of pop celluloid which rarely finds its way into the rankings.
Enter American Hot Wax, a biopic that surveyed a week in the life of legendary DJ and TV personality Alan Freed, who gained infamy by being at the heart of the 1959 payola scandal that shook American broadcasting. It began its trek around the screens of some 600 U.S. cinemas on March 17. Much was expected from it. Paramount’s follow-up to Robert Stigwood’s blockbusting Saturday Night Fever, it was produced by Art Linson, who had delivered 1976 screwy comedy Car Wash with some aplomb, and directed by Floyd Mutrux of Freebie And The Bean (1974) fame. To promote its launch, Paramount came up with a one-hour TV show titled Thank You, Rock’n’Roll (A Tribute To Alan Freed) which boasted Ray Charles, Rita Coolidge, The Coasters, The Carpenters, William Shatner, Smokey Robinson, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Sissy Spacek, Dion and more on its guest list.
Cameron Crow Cameo
Other pre-screening hoo-ha involved Grammy nominated director Cameron Crowe. Then a Rolling Stone scribe, he was designated to cover the making of the film. But soon after his arrival at Paramount he found himself hauled into the lower reaches of the cast list - alongside music biz names Bob Ezrin, Richard Perry and Eric Mercury - and informed he was playing the unnamed Delivery Boy. “I was whisked off to wardrobe,” he recounted, “and then to the fifties. The costume designer fitted me with ratty tennis shoes, an apron, at-shirt and a little white hat and handed me a package of ketchup. ‘Just spread a little of this on yourself’ he instructed. Be here at eight in a couple of days.”
The rest of the cast list spread below the starring names of Tim McIntire (cast as Alan Freed) and Fran Drescher (Freed’s secretary), was impressive. Jay Leno, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Kenny Vance, Brenda Russell, Hamilton Camp, Artie Ripp, Frankie Ford and Nils Lofgren were all on the payroll. And the film’s song credits seem set to roll on forever, providing fodder galore for an A&M double-album soundtrack album formed from original hit recordings plus contributions from newly-forged vocal groups including The Chesterfields and The Delights.
The film was a tribute to ‘50s rock that was tied loosely to the story of Freed’s efforts to arrange a rock’n’roll anniversary show at the Brooklyn Paramount, and his accompanying stand against those who sought to maintain segregation and keep the youth in line. It portrayed him as the enthusiastic and principled hero of the coming music culture, but glossed over his indictment for accepting kickbacks to play particular records on air - and the fall from grace that followed.
“We’re trying to capture the naive excitement when rock and roll was being born.”
Also ignored was the ongoing feud between rock legends Berry and Lewis, and most reviewers panned the picture while acknowledging that McIntire made a believable Freed and that Berry, Lewis and Hawkins provided moments of genuine excitement. The New York Times observed “American Hot Wax has a plot so thin you could thread a needle with it,” though the Village Voice appeared more enthusiastic, printing interviews with Floyd Mutrux and screenwriter John Kaye who claimed: “It’s not a documentary but the spirit and authenticity are there. It’s a period piece. We’re trying to capture the naive excitement of a time when rock and roll was being born.”
Though American Hot Wax proved to be a disappointment, Paramount boss Michael Eisner loved the film and reportedly viewed it around a dozen times, even though it pulled in less than eight million dollars at the US box office and was considered a bomb. The soundtrack too failed to live up to sales expectations, clambering to 31 in the Billboard charts. As for Tim McIntire, he didn’t quite fade from sight, surfacing to appear as country star George Jones in the TV movie Stand By Your Man, in 1981. But his reliance on a diet of drugs and alcohol led to an early death from heart-failure and, on April 15, 1986, he passed away from congestive heart failure, aged just 41. He was just two younger than Freed was when the great DJ, in Palm Springs exile, died of cirrhosis of the liver on January 20, 1965.