The year is 1959 and radio disc jockey Alan Freed (Tim McIntire) is presenting his rock and roll show on a Cleveland radio station, in spite of one of his bosses attempting to persuade him to stop playing black music because the sponsors don't like it. His programmes are so popular that everywhere Freed goes these days he is followed by groups and artists and record pluggers vying for his attention as they know that getting a few plays from him on the air can mean the difference between a flop and a success. He also has one of his big rock concerts coming up - little does he know it will be his last...
The story of Mr Rock 'n' Roll himself, Alan Freed, is one which well deserved the biopic treatment, and American Hot Wax may not have been the most accurate version of the facts, but for many it captured the spirit of the man and the rebellion of the era's music perfectly. Make no mistake, the main character is a rebel and a trendsetter in that revolution he leads, not only in his own mind but in the minds of the filmmakers, and as in life he pays the price for this forward thinking, seeing the future of rock and pop with uncanny clarity.
McIntire might not have looked too much like Freed (although eerily they both died too young of the effects of alcoholism at almost the same age) but he has the charisma of a great broadcaster and most importantly conveys the sincerity and love of what he is playing to his adoring public - McIntire was a musician too, and knew of what he was portraying here. It seems as though director Floyd Mutrux was not so much going for pinpoint accuracy as picking bits and pieces of the history of the subject and adapting them, with John Kaye's script (veteran producer Art Linson gets a story credit), into a collection of evocative sequences.
Therefore along with Freed we get the teenage president of the Buddy Holly fan club (Moosie Drier) who is interviewed on the occasion of his idol's birthday, a touching scene which again underlines the way the heroic characters' lives revolve around their favourite music, and Laraine Newman as a Carole King-alike called Louise who is writing songs for a talented doo-wop quartet, whose stories are returned to as they get their first step on the ladder to fame. The manner in which these vignettes are handled is a realistic and almost chaotic one, with the film at times resembling a rock Robert Altman work.
This is to its benefit in that it can be vague about the details while in the service of atmosphere, but on the other hand can be frustrating for anyone wanting a proper plotline from their biopics. There are autobiographical details for those who want them, the most significant - and tragic - being when Freed refuses to sign a statement saying that he has never accepted gifts for playing records because everyone in the business did in those days. This marks his downfall, but we don't quite get that far as the action culminates in the authorities closing the stage show and causing a riot; part of the seventies nostalgia for the fifties was that it presented people standing up to The Man in their own way. The concert at the end presents the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry as themselves, the latter somewhat unbelievably agreeing to play for free, with the result that American Hot Wax is a cheering tribute to both Freed and the music he championed.