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‘Sun Records’ review: Bold and ambitious, yet messy

A new CMT series tells the story of the legendary Memphis record label that helped launch rock and roll. Credit: CMT

THE SERIES “Sun Records”

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. on CMT


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 successful.

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.

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