In 1978, just a few months before the release of “Grease,” another rock ’n’ roll movie hit theaters. But unlike the immortal high school musical, “American Hot Wax” didn’t strike a chord with audiences.
Since then, it’s gained a little cult cred.
“American Hot Wax,” directed by Floyd Mutrux, tells the true story of Alan Freed (played by Tim McIntire), a pioneering radio DJ who was credited with introducing rock ’n’ roll to white audiences in the 1950s. Freed was later disgraced in a bribery scandal. The film chronicles his fall as well as his rise.
John Kaye, who now lives in Omaha, wrote the feature and will attend a Film Streams screening of “American Hot Wax” this weekend. Kaye, 74, also wrote the Hunter S. Thompson biopic “Where the Buffalo Roam,” starring Bill Murray, as well as a few other films. But “American Hot Wax” remains his favorite project.
“Of the movies I’ve written,” Kaye said, “it’s the one I’m most proud of.”
It’s a film remembered for its many superstar musical performances (Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis) and as an early vehicle for Jay Leno, Fran Drescher and Cameron Crowe.
Another reason audiences have stayed curious about the film is that it was never released on VHS or DVD because of song-licensing issues. Its extreme scarceness makes a public screening a little more special.
We spoke with Kaye ahead of the screening about the film’s origins and legacy.
On how hard the film is to see:
“One of the reasons it was never released on home video or DVD is because of the music-clearance issues. There were like 30 tunes in there, and they weren’t covered for home video. So it’s hard to see. On the other hand, it’s nice to have it as a kind of cult film, anyway.”
On why it’s his favorite:
“I just like watching it. There’s stuff in there that captured a great moment in time when I was a teenager. How I felt about music is represented in that movie.”
On the movie’s poor box office performance:
“The movie didn’t do well financially for Paramount. People in the know loved it. But Paramount didn’t know how to promote it.”
Why he wrote it to begin with:
“What I wanted to capture was I remember driving to high school in 1957 in L.A. While I was driving, the DJ would come on the radio and say, ‘Kids, a promotion man from Mercury Records just walked into the studio and handed me a new Jerry Lee Lewis record, and we’re going to listen to it together for the first time.’ And he’d put on ‘Great Balls of Fire.’
“Now, you were a kid driving to school, and you believed that the DJ was listening to this record for the first time, same as you were.
“It was a great time to be a kid because everything was new. The music was new, the girls were new, sex was new, everything was new. That was the moment. That’s what I wanted to recapture with the film.”
"AMERICAN HOT WAX"
Screenwriter John Kaye will discuss the film at a 7 p.m. screening Sunday at Film Streams.