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Image Entertainment presents
Good Rockin' Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records (2001)

"It was a hell of a thing. I'm really glad I was there. That's about the best three years of my life, really. Boy, did we have fun."
- Jack Clement, engineer at Sun Records

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: December 17, 2002

Stars: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Phillips
Other Stars: Scotty Moore, D. J. Fontana, Ahmet Ertegun, Billy Lee Riley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Kid Rock, Paul McCartney, Jools Holland, Mark Knopfler, Bryan Ferry, Johnny Hollyday, Zucchero
Director: Bruce Sinofsky

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 01h:51m:53s
Release Date: October 08, 2002
UPC: 014381170122
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ A-B+A- D-

DVD Review

Have you heard the news? There's good rockin' tonight. PBS's American Masters series generally considers one great artist, but this entry is a little bit different: the focus is on not one singer or dancer or writer or actor, but on a record label. The tiny little Memphis storefront known as Sun Records changed the course of popular music not only in the U.S., but worldwide, and this documentary is a fond look back at the label's founder, Sam Phillips, and some of the acts he "discovered" for Sun, including Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and a fellow from Memphis named Elvis Presley. Perhaps you've heard of them.

Phillips more or less presides over this documentary, sharing war stories about his golden years, about looking for something that was "imperfectly perfect, that's my sound." He doesn't take too much credit—it wasn't him writing or singing or playing those songs, he'll be the first to tell you. But he could smell out a hit, and he's especially smart talking about the power of music during a time of great social unrest, about how things like Brown versus Board of Education were on some level unthinkable without Sun's music: "They could segregate everything except the radio dial."

Phillips happily recorded everyone and everything who came through his studio—if you had talent, he wanted you on his label. The biggest knock against him, it seems, is that he played favorites, and wasn't able to groom more than one hitmaker at a time. Especially bitter is a mid-50s recording artist named Billy Lee Riley, who insists that he would have been a giant of rock and roll if Phillips hadn't thrown him over for Jerry Lee Lewis and Great Balls of Fire. Goodness gracious.

The occasion for the look back is the fiftieth anniversary of Sun Records, commemorated by a tribute album, produced by Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun. It's unclear why Ertegun is producing this, and not Phillips; and it's sort of a disappointment that not all the artists are covering Sun tunes from the Sun studio, since so much is made of the unique acoustics of that Memphis space. Ertegun and Phillips have fun trading old yarns, too—Ertegun had offered Phillips $25,000 for Presley's contract, but he lost out to RCA, who bid $35,000.

Paul McCartney covers Elvis's first big hit, That's All Right, Mama, and he's joined by Scotty Moore on guitar and D. J. Fontana on drums, who backed up Presley on the original. After an obligatory mutual admiration society, the song sounds all right, but it's more of a museum piece; it's better conceptually—a Beatle with Elvis's backing band!—than in practice. Ben Folds Five sound much better and into it doing Honey Don't, the old Carl Perkins tune, and Mark Knopfler, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Kid Rock, Third Eye Blind and a couple of European singers contribute tracks as well. The best is saved for last, as Matchbox Twenty record in Memphis, at Sun, with Jerry Lee Lewis on piano—the song is Charlie Rich's Lonely Weekend, and sounds terrific. (The DVD case makes mention of an accompanying CD, with additional tracks by Bob Dylan, Chris Isaak, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow and others.)

Lewis doesn't sit for an interview, which is unfortunate, as many of the film's highlights are of the old Sun musicians, now getting on in years, strolling down memory lane over a couple of cold ones or a plate of Memphis barbecue. Yes, some remain bitter—blues man Rufus Thomas is especially pissed off about Sun and Phillips getting too much credit, the white man co-opting the blues from those who came by them rightfully—but mostly those battles seem like they were a long time ago, and there are many worse ways to pass the time than with these guys, sharing good food, good drink and good tunes.

All in all, it's a pretty nice look back at a pivotal time in American music. I guess my biggest beef with the project is this: if your house is anything like mine, your phone is ringing constantly, and you're being implored to save your local PBS affiliate from certain bankruptcy with a generous donation. Does public broadcasting really need to solicit our hard-earned dollars to subsidize a project that involves the likes of Kid Rock and Paul McCartney?

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The anamorphic transfer is an impressive one, with a rich, saturated palette and little interference. It's not an especially innovative documentary in terms of its visual style, and this clean DVD version doesn't distract at all from the main event, the music.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The 5.1 track reaps rewards especially with the musical numbers, in which the audio capacity serves the tunes very well. But given that this is a look at music recorded in the 1950s, the stereo track is more than sufficient in helping to evoke that time and place.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 30 cues and remote access
Packaging: Amaray
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: A generous helping of chapter stops is all you'll find, in terms of extras.

Extras Grade: D-


Final Comments

Any excuse to revisit some of the great American popular music of the 1950s is a fine one, and this documentary does a good job of balancing the tunes with situating Sun Records in its appropriate historical context. Big, toe-tapping fun.


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