Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis — their names are firmly woven into the history and fabric of American pop culture — and with “Sun Records,” CMT peels back the curtain on these icons to tell an odd musical backstory, steeped as much in fiction as in history.
Originally titled “Million Dollar Quartet” — adapted from the Tony Award-winning musical of the same name — the network’s followup to “Nashville’s” latest, triumphant season follows Elvis (Drake Milligan), Johnny (Kevin Fonteyne) and Jerry Lee (Christian Lees) — and don’t forget Carl Perkins (Dustin Ingram) — as they each find their musical calling, culminating in the historical 1956 jam session that really put Sun Records on the map.
In its first episodes, “Sun Records” presents itself as a nostalgic throwback to a particular cultural awakening, and as such walks a fine line between performance and impersonation: Watching Elvis struggle with his high school woes, it can be hard not to compare Milligan’s Elvis to that of the many actors before him. That’s part of the price when you’re larger-than-life characters like these.
The opposite can be said for Fonteyne’s performance as Johnny Cash, and though he does his best to make the character his own, liberties taken with the timeline and facts — the most recently retold in the larger culture — may distract a certain kind of viewer. Fact-checkers and self-appointed experts may find themselves disappointed or unable to watch the story due to their own familiarity with the historical source material. It’s also possible that viewers like this would know better than to watch in the first place, of course.
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That’s not to say that “Sun Records” doesn’t entertain — the ensemble cast of characters, from pioneering disk jockey Dewey Phillips (Keir O’Donnell) to Billy Gardell’s take on the notorious music manager Colonel Tom Parker, all breathe vibrant life into a tale that retains its interest, even if it’s old hat for some. The strength of the cast, and directorial choices of Roland Joffe (“Texas Rising”), give the period series an angle that is both engaging and entertaining.
The series may veer from certain accuracies — Murray’s Phillips feels like a Matthew McConaughey impression more often than not — there are some dynamic nuggets that continue throughout, leading us toward that famous jam session. Other characters prominent in music from the time and region appear — BB King (Castro Coleman) and Ike Turner (Kerry D. Holliday), of course, are both owed a huge debt by both Sun Records and rock-and-roll itself, and the show wouldn’t be complete without at least a good-faith attempt at acknowledging the Black roots and music that made it all possible.
Twins Christian and Jonah Lees are another highlight as mischievous cousins Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart: A raucous relationship that, no matter how mired in scandal the men will grow to find themselves, presents an innocence and wonder that gives “Sun Records” some much-needed levity.
Though the fluid timeline and pacing issues are worrisome, there are elements of nostalgia and musical magic here that makes the series a worthy Thursday-night fit for the contemporary “Nashville” — and with the way the music industry has gone, in recent years, provide a fitting pair of bookends for a particular era… And reminding us that the joy of making music, and the art of creating it, are timeless.
“Sun Records” airs Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CMT.