Just because Shake, Rattle & Roll (sunday and Wednesday, November 7 and 10; 9 to 11 p.m.; CBS) is such an agreeable start to the November sweeps doesn’t make it profound. As in so many anguished movies from the old South Africa, in which the hero always seemed to be a white lawyer or journalist for whom black suffering was somehow redemptive, the palefaced lovers in the Mike Medavoy-Spencer Proffer-Mike Robe miniseries will be reminded of the true meaning of the feisty music only after a brown-skinned friend meets a tragic fate while registering voters in the Jim Crow South. But I am churlish, and Shake, Rattle & Roll is not.
Briefly, Lyne (Bonnie Somerville) and Marsha (Samaria Graham), who grew up color-blind on an Army base on Guam, find themselves introducing the big beat at a bobby-socks high school in Swanson, Missouri, in 1955, to fellow seniors Tyler (Brad Hawkins), the hunky guitarist with the Elvis moves; Mookie (Travis Fine), the lovelorn drummer; and Dotson (Kai Lennox), a stand-up guy like his bass. One glimpse, across state lines, of Little Richard, and everybody is ready to graduate from “Glow, little glow worm, glimmer, glimmer.” While Marsha goes off to Barnard and doo-wop, Lyne, Tyler, Mookie, and Dotson hit the road for Memphis, Charlotte, New York, and Atlanta, along the way running into Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, and the King himself, who are all friendly and encouraging, as well as James Coburn and Dana Delany, who offer them a recording contract and eat them alive.
What makes Shake, Rattle & Roll such surprising fun are cameo appearances by contemporary musicians as early rock legends – Billy Porter as Little Richard, Terence Trent D’Arby as Jackie Wilson, Dicky Barrett as Bill Haley, Gary Allan as Eddie Cochran, B. B. King as the Blues Master, Chanté Moore, Rahsaan Patterson, Jesse Powell, K-Ci & JoJo, and blink-182 – and the fact that Carole King, Bob Dylan, Graham Nash, Lamont Dozier, and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller have come out of retirement, or the doldrums, to write new songs that sound old. (I can’t swear to it on a single hearing, but Carole King’s “Wall Around My Heart” seems the best of these, Bob Dylan’s “Fur Slippers” the slightest.) And we hear plenty of the genuinely old songs too, breezing along till 1963, when the frame darkens with protest marches and surfer music, after which a very blonde Lyne will have to read a “Family of Man” message to a black church in muddy, bloody Mississippi.
Sweeps simplemindedness aside, Shake, Rattle & Roll has most of the swift moves. At my fortieth high-school reunion several years ago, I was blamed for Elvis. This astounded. To be sure, I used to listen to Fats Domino on my crystal set, but only when I wasn’t reading Jack Kerouac and James Joyce or editorializing against fraternities and atomic bombs. Nevertheless, in troubled memory, my classmates had folded every form of social deviance that ever ruffled the feathers of the fifties into one big lump of delinquency. And our parents were probably right, too. It was one thing when dirty-dancing race music confined itself to the roadhouse, blues bar, and underclass but quite another when ducktailed poor whites insinuated a hubcap-stealing/rockabilly variant of that same R&B into the ears and glands of the Wonder Bread children of a bored, skeptical, and horny suburban middle class. Looking back, it was also perhaps inevitable that we’d paddle our guitars like kayaks upstream into cultural-studies swamp gas, where Chuck Berry was transgressive; where Elvis ended the Ike snooze; where Jim Morrison, running to fat and demons in the mind-blown desert, embodied not only the satanic Nietzschean flip side of “La Bamba” but also a Lizard King in leather pants; where Janis and/or Jimi died for our sins, Ice Cube doesn’t like Koreans, and Springsteen is a border intellectual.