CMT is selling Sun Records as the saga of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis as the revolutionary first generation of rock ‘n’ roll, but the show is really about Sam Phillips, founder of the record label that recorded them all — Sun Records — in 1950s Memphis. Phillips is played by Chad Michael Murray as a poor and stubborn innovator, determined to build a company around a new sound that would combine black rhythm and blues with white country music to forge both an art form and a money-maker.
Based loosely on the hit Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet, Sun Records takes its very leisurely time getting to the exciting, rock ‘n’ roll part of this drama. As though the producers were mounting a musical version of The Avengers, we get the stories of all the principals. Elvis (Drake Milligan) — the eventual Captain America of rock ‘n’ roll, straight-edged and noble — is a poor, shy Mississippi farm boy whose mother, Gladys, sees his potential early on. Jerry Lee (Christian Lees) is a cocky Louisiana piano player who pounds out tunes with the cautious encouragement of his highly religious cousin Jimmy (Jonah Lees). Johnny Cash (Kevin Fontaine) is an aimless Arkansas rebel who enlists in the Air Force and is stationed in Germany.
Meanwhile, Sam Phillips is back at the ramshackle Memphis Recording Service, trying to make a go of it without much success. The TV show plays up a hazy historical fact — that Sam probably had an affair with his office assistant, Marion Keisker (Margaret Anne Florence). She is more firmly embedded in history as the person who first noticed Elvis’s star potential when he wandered into Sun Records to record a birthday song for his mom.
I should say that this last detail has not yet been dramatized in Sun Records in the four episodes made available to critics — as I said, the pace of this show about lively music is really slow. It is also so light on context that I cannot imagine what viewers who are unfamiliar with 1950s rock will make of it. Will the audience for Sun Records realize, just to take one example, that Jerry Lee Lewis’s cousin is the nascent Jimmy Swaggart, soon to become one of the most prominent conservative televangelists ever?
Mike & Molly’s Billy Gardell dominates a lengthy subplot about a blustery carnival barker who’ll become Col. Tom Parker, the eventual manager of Elvis. But here, he’s just a hustler who lucks into managing the career of Eddy Arnold (Trevor Donovan), a smooth-voiced crooner who deserves better than to be portrayed as a mere goody-goody pushed aside for the rock revolution. By the fourth episode, Parker isn’t anywhere near Elvis yet — he’s just signed up Hank Snow, played by the excellent singer Pokey LaFarge, and again, Sun Records gives no context for Snow, a great Canadian country star, billed as “the Singing Ranger.” He and Arnold are rendered as mere yokels who must give way to the rise of rock ‘n’ roll — and that just ain’t the way it happened, kids.
The show tries to be mindful of the racial aspects of this history. The fourth member of what would become the Million Dollar Quartet — Carl Perkins — doesn’t even appear in the episodes I’ve seen. Instead, we get the story of how Ike Turner (Kerry Holliday) — now a villain in history for his spousal abuse of Tina Turner, but at this point in his life a vital, imaginative musician — recorded the song “Rocket 88” in 1951 with his band the Kings of Rhythm. His glory was robbed when Chess Records released it under the name of the song’s vocalist, Ike’s saxophonist Jackie Brenston, and the band was renamed the Delta Cats. You’d never guess from this show that “Rocket 88” is frequently considered the first hit in the then-new genre dubbed rock ‘n’ roll.
Repetitious (okay, we get it: Sam Phillips had an unhappy marriage and made out with Marion as frequently as possible) and clumsy as it lurches from one disparate subplot to another, Sun Records is such a slow burn it’s kind of a fizzle.
Sun Records airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. on CMT.