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Review: CMT's 'Sun Records' can't live up to legacy of Elvis, Cash and more

The cast of CMT’s Sun Records stars from left, Drake Milligan as a less charming Elvis Presley, Kerry Holiday as Ike Turner, Kevin Fonteyne as Johnny Cash, Dustin Ingram as Carl Perkins and Christian Lees as Jerry Lee Lewis.
The cast of CMT’s Sun Records stars from left, Drake Milligan as a less charming Elvis Presley, Kerry Holiday as Ike Turner, Kevin Fonteyne as Johnny Cash, Dustin Ingram as Carl Perkins and Christian Lees as Jerry Lee Lewis.
Published Feb. 22, 2017

Sam Phillips was an early pioneer for rock 'n' roll and — if you believe CMT's new scripted series Sun Records — the drugs and sex, too.

You know the names: Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. And perhaps you already know the story. The four musicians walk into Phillips' recording studio for an impromptu jam session on Dec. 4, 1956, and solidify a new sound of music that still resonates 60 years later. But CMT's eight-part drama based on the Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet just doesn't live up to the legends' legacies.

Sun Records sure takes its time introducing each familiar face. It begins in Memphis, Tenn., in 1950, when Phillips (One Tree Hill's Chad Michael Murray) opens his recording studio and begins finding the voices of what would become the early sound of rock 'n' roll. We meet Presley and Lewis as lovesick high school boys who play different games to get the girl, and Cash as he's about to leave to serve overseas. But in the four episodes provided to critics, we still haven't really met Perkins.

While the show mostly focuses on Phillips (and Murray's ridiculously heavy Southern drawl), it's the obviously inexperienced newcomers playing the quartet who unfortunately carry the weight of the show. For example, Drake Milligan, who plays Presley, is more like the John Stamos' Elvis impression on Full House but not as charming.

The show has six years of backstory to get through, and it's severely lacking in musical numbers, which are some of the show's best scenes. Records also stumbles on finding the right tone. It's a wholesome afterschool-special biopic mixed with a soapy night-time drama. And while we need the context of the segregated South, most of the time the overt racism is gratuitous.

However, the show does something absolutely right: adding the influential sounds of artists B.B. King, Ike Turner, Muddy Waters and Fats Domino. But with so many stories to tell, Sun Records loses focus. Hopefully, it's worth all the sloppiness to see the foursome do what they do best: play the music.

Contact Brittany Volk at bvolk@tampabay.com. Follow @bevolk.

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