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A Tale Of Two Suns

Good Rockin' Tonight offers two versions of the legacy of Sun Records.



Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana, and Sir Paul McCartney (l-r)
"Sam Phillips was not the innovator of nothing," Rufus Thomas says at one point in Good Rockin' Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records, a PBS documentary that premieres this week. Thomas' contention is debatable to say the least, but the fact that it's in the film at all is a testament to the worthiness of the project, which, in true Sun fashion, makes room for individuality and contrariness.

A product of the American Masters documentary series, Good Rockin' Tonight, along with a more dubious tribute album/listening companion released a few weeks ago, celebrates the 50th anniversary of Sam Phillips' epochal Memphis record label and studio, that tiny building at 706 Union Avenue that many, including the city of Memphis, insist is the birthplace of rock-and-roll.

"Sam Phillips didn't start rock-and-roll in Memphis in the mid-'50s," insists former Carl Perkins drummer W.S. Holland at another point in the film. "All you've got to do is pull the records -- Big Joe Turner, Fats Domino," he says, citing a couple of rock-and-roll artists that predated Elvis. Uh-oh, here we go again. But this kind of free-flowing dissent from conventional opinion (as long as we're at it, how about a bitter Billy Lee Riley on Phillips: "He's not a god, he's a man who cheated me out of money"[!]) doesn't detract at all from the "legacy" of Sun, the importance of which is widely understood and entirely unimpeachable. Rather, it gives a welcome shot of personality to a project that could just have well been blandly promotional.

Sam Phillips is, of course, center stage in Good Rockin' Tonight and is as weird and eloquent and inspirational as ever, but most of the rest of the Sun alumni who appear in the film may be unknown to a lot of more casual music fans. That the film -- at least in terms of people who actually matter in the Sun story -- is so lacking in star power is, of course, predictable. After all, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Charlie Rich are no longer with us; Johnny Cash has suffered serious health problems over the last few years; and Jerry Lee Lewis (who does appear during the recording of "Lonely Weekends" with Matchbox Twenty) probably isn't the most agreeable guy in the world. But the pleasant surprise is that Good Rockin' Tonight doesn't suffer in the slightest from its focus on Sun's session players and second-tier stars -- a group that includes Riley, Sonny Burgess, Jack Clement, J.M. Van Eaton, Ace Cannon, the late Malcolm Yelvington, and many others, in addition to more well-known Elvis sidemen Scotty Moore and D.J. Fontana as well as the inimitable Rufus Thomas. Instead, it's invigorating to see and hear these figures, especially in the informal settings director Bruce Sinofsky (of the great documentary Brother's Keeper) places them in. This includes a wonderfully intimate, unrehearsed, and entirely uncensored bull session at Blues City Café from which most of the earlier quotes are taken, as well as a roundtable discussion at downtown's Bon-Ton Café that sometimes includes Phillips (priceless moment: Clement rolling his eyes as Phillips says something mystical about Elvis' hair) and a backyard story-swap at Burgess' Newport, Arkansas, home.

There's a second strand to the documentary (which also includes some wonderful home-movie footage of a young Phillips, Howlin' Wolf in studio, and Memphis jug bands playing in the street), of course, which includes footage of some of the recording sessions of modern performers covering Sun songs, some of which made it on the Good Rockin' Tonight CD and some of which didn't.

On its own terms, most of this footage (Paul McCartney excepted) is either pointless or actively annoying. But taken together, these two radically different looks at Sun today act as a sort of unintentional essay (though Sinofsky is such a savvy filmmaker you have to wonder whether it could be an intentionally submerged critique) on how the "legacy" of Sun records has been abandoned by the corporate recording industry. Sinofsky juxtaposes rich and rough-hewn performances from Sun vets -- Riley and Thomas doing Thomas' Sun hit "Bear Cat" and Riley, Van Eaton, and Yelvington's "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" at Blues City Café or the closing 50th anniversary reunion jam session at Sun itself -- with modern rock stars covering these songs at expensive studios in New York, London, Los Angeles, and Paris (or even Matchbox Twenty recording "Lonely Weekends" at Sun itself). Phillips' and Clement's comments about the spontaneity, emotion, and rule-breaking of the Sun sound and how those elements are missing today are perfectly illustrated. The segments on Live's recording of Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" and Third Eye Blind mangling Cash's "Cry, Cry, Cry" are particularly depressing.

The footage surrounding the Good Rockin' Tonight sessions does offer some treats. Most music fans should get a charge out of seeing Phillips and Atlantic Records founder and Good Rockin' Tonight producer Ahmet Ertegun, easily two of the most important non-performers in all of American music, casually interacting at Sun Studios or Paul McCartney awkwardly sharing compliments with Moore and Fontana or Ertegun talking about once trying to buy Elvis' contract for Atlantic.

And the record itself? Like the vast majority of tribute albums, it's a mix of the charming (McCartney's overly reverential but sill lovely "That's All Right" and especially Bob Dylan's "Red Cadillac and A Black Moustache"), the insipid (the aforementioned Live and Matchbox Twenty), and the blandly functional (almost everything else). Why should anyone want to celebrate the 50th anniversary of something as profound and beautiful as Sun Records by listening to modern rock mediocrities plod through songs that sounded so vibrant in their original versions or middlebrow rock celebrities struggling to capture the unkempt charm of the Sun sound? Outside of Dylan, the best thing about the record is the artwork from local artist Lamar Sorrento.

Good Rockin' Tonight the film adds something useful to the legacy of Sun, but after that I'd suggest you pay your respects by listening to some actual Sun records.

Good Rockin' Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records

premieres Wednesday, November 28th, at 8 p.m. on WKNO-TV Channel 10.

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