Myth and a contrived song catalogue win out in ‘Million Dollar Quartet’
The myth of the “million dollar quartet,” like most of the mythology surrounding the early days of rock ‘n’ roll, revolves around the Sun — that is, Sun Records.
That’s the Podunk recording studio in Memphis, owned by pioneering executive Sam Phillips, that launched the careers of most of the greats of rockabilly and early rock ‘n’ roll: Elvis, Orbison, Jerry Lee, Charlie Rich, Carl Perkins, the Man in Black.
The story is this: Four budding hall of famers — really just one phenom (Elvis), one successful newcomer (Johnny Cash), one already-has-been (Perkins) and a not-anyone-yet (Lewis) — gathered one afternoon in December 1956 for a jam session. They recorded about four dozen tracks, only 17 of which have ever been released. The legend was cemented with a photo of the foursome (Elvis, inexplicably, seated at the piano) that purported to capture history in the making.
The problem with the session, as is the problem with most myths, is that the reality is far less interesting than rumor. Million Dollar Quartet seeks to dramatize those “historic” events, but does so in such a contrived and inaccurate way, you can easily see it for what it is: Just another run-of-the-mill jukebox musical piggybacking on a famous event.
Carl, Elvis, Jerry Lee and Johnny were all good Baptist Southern boys; many of the tracks they actually recorded that day were spirituals, or bluegrass classics. I think it’s fair to say no one of the songs performed in Million Dollar Quartet were actually recorded by the “million dollar quartet” — some hadn’t even been written yet (“Wild Child,” “Great Balls of Fire”). So, if you’re expecting a dramatization of actual events, you won’t find it here.
That’s not a terrible thing — artistic license has its place. But creator and co-author Floyd Mutrux resorts instantly to clichés and historic inaccuracies. It’s artistic demagoguery: Giving an audience what you think they want. For instance, Cash’s vocals show up nowhere on the real session; Cash here (Derek Keeling) gets to perform “Folsom Prison Blues” and “I Walk the Line”… if only. And he’s already dressed in black (even though in the historic photo, he’s plainly not), as if the audience will only accept that image in their head.
These flubs continue to derail the show, as does its insistence on reminding us what talents all these men were. (Half the numbers are interrupted by Sam Phillips, addressing the audience and encouraging them to applause as if he’s the MC at an especially dull pageant.) The insertion of a plot about Sam re-signing Cash, and Jerry Lee’s repeated assertions that he’s gonna be a star (clearly, based on his piano playing and Martin Kaye’s energetic performance, anyone could see that) become tiresome.
Cody Slaughter’s rubber-boned impersonation of The King energizes some scenes, and the music will surely appeal to fans of the genre, but as theater Million Dollar Quartet is a misfire — not on the order of the unwatchable Ring of Fire, but a disappointing production that squanders the chance to capture the truth of a moment of history and not just serve as a functionary reason to cobble together rock songs, a low-rent Jersey Boys for rockabilly addicts.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 9, 2012.