Recently, CMT aired a new series called “Sun Records,” directed by Roland Joffé. The first episode premiered on Thursday Feb. 23. So far, five episodes have aired as of March 30. The show is based on the musical “Million Dollar Quartet” written by Colin Escott and Floyd Mutrux. The first three episodes of the series are available to watch online for free.
The premise is about the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis, TN. Sun Records was the recording company that launched Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and many other rock legends to fame. The show follows each of these artists as their young selves just breaking into the music business, all under the guidance of Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records.
The majority of the cast is made up of unknowns who bear an uncanny resemblance to their rock ‘n’ roll counterparts. Drake Milligan, who plays Presley, has only been in one other production, a movie entitled “Nobody,” in which he played Presley as well. So, you could say he’s kind of an expert on the role. And he really does look remarkably like the King; his singing voice even sounds like him.
Kevin Fonteyne plays Cash, and he too looks like the star. However, Fonteyne has had much more acting experience, but has never played Cash before, having been in shows like “Melissa & Joey” and “Masters of Sex.” Both young men are talented and fantastic at emulating their rock icons; myself being a huge Johnny Cash and Elvis fan, I can attest to this.
Additionally, Lewis has appeared in the series so far. Though his role has not been large, a moment that captured me was him sitting down at the piano and working out the piano accompaniment to what really sounded like “Great Balls of Fire,” which Lewis produced in 1957, so it’s not far off of the timeline.
The show also stars early 2000s heartthrob Chad Michael Murray of “A Cinderella Story” and “One Tree Hill.” He plays Phillips, the owner and recorder of Sun Records. Phillips is working on making his studio a big hit, as he and his wife spent all their money on it. As of episode three (which is as far as I’ve gotten), Sun Records has yet to make a huge splash. Phillips is also entangled in a steamy affair with his coworker Marion, played by Margaret Anne Florence. Murray is so deeply fascinated with his character, telling Rolling Stone how he conceptualized Phillips: “I sat down and I saw what a character Sam was. He was just insane in the most beautiful way. I have so much respect for him. How does one man literally change the world by finding the sound, creating the sound of rock & roll that shaped our history, shaped us as a culture, as all art does? He’s the one guy that started this whole thing but he kind of hides in the background behind legendary figures.”
One thing that wowed me about the show was how deep it drew me in. The sets, costumes, dialogue, and accents completely immerse you into southern culture in the 1950s. Though I myself am from the Northeast and can’t really attest to their accuracy, the southern accents are laid on thick, but sound incredibly realistic, especially for the really southern states that it takes place in, such as Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas. The entire set up of the show makes me nostalgic for a time that I wasn’t even alive to see.
One of the more precarious things about a show set in the 50s is obviously the racism and segregation, especially for the southern states. “Sun Records” does not ignore the existence of racism, which I think is incredibly important. So many (white) people idealize the 50s for its milkshakes and sock hops while ignoring the struggle for civil rights. “Sun Records” not only touches upon it, but makes it very clear that the racist people are the ones in the wrong, where as our protagonists openly accept the black community. Phillips allows anyone to record in his studio, no matter their race, and as of the first three episodes the majority of his artists have been people of color. Presley leaves his own stuffy white church to attend the local black church, finding joy in their music and spirit. A moment that left me with a huge smile on my face was when everyone in the church is singing, and Elvis is there singing and clapping along. The woman next to him hugs him and tells him, “You got somethin’ goin’ on!” The way Elvis and the woman smiled melted my heart.
The third episode opens with the nicest scene of Johnny Cash in the air force, having been shipped of to Germany. He’s sitting in a German beer hall when he almost gets in a fight, and instead of sending out punches, he gets up on stage and starts singing, getting the entire hall involved and clapping along. It was just such a nice moment to witness.
This show is classified as a drama, but that doesn’t mean there’s dark twists around every turn. There are plenty of lighthearted moments, some of which I have mentioned here. There are darker moments, like Murray’s character Phillips having a bit of a drug problem and a bit of a money problem, or Presley’s girlfriend dumping him for hanging out at the black church. So far, the series is a great way to get a glimpse into the history of rock n’ roll, and it’s pretty accurate. I haven’t seen any obvious anachronisms yet. I would recommend watching this series while it’s barely started; there’s to be a total of eight episodes in the first season, and hopefully we’ll get many more. This show is for fans of blues and rock ‘n’ roll music and musicians, as well as those who are looking for a good historical show. Even people who just like Chad Michael Murray will enjoy this series. Maybe it’s just the rock ‘n’ roll lover in me, but this is honestly one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time.
Photo courtesy of CMT