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One for the money

CMT's 'Sun Records' gets dramatic about Sam Phillips and the roots of rock 'n' roll.

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MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET: Country Music Television's series "Sun Records" homes in on the early careers of (from left) Ike Turner (Kerry Holiday), Johnny Cash (Kevin Fonteyne), Elvis Presley (Drake Milligan), Carl Perkins (Dustin Ingram) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Christian Lees) under the mentorship of renowned producer Sam Phillips (Chad Michael Murray, not pictured). It premieres on CMT 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23.
  • MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET: Country Music Television's series "Sun Records" homes in on the early careers of (from left) Ike Turner (Kerry Holiday), Johnny Cash (Kevin Fonteyne), Elvis Presley (Drake Milligan), Carl Perkins (Dustin Ingram) and Jerry Lee Lewis (Christian Lees) under the mentorship of renowned producer Sam Phillips (Chad Michael Murray, not pictured). It premieres on CMT 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23.

Playing a musical icon in a movie or a television show is a tall order. There is much to live up to and frankly, I usually expect the worst. On top of that, the cast of CMT's new series "Sun Records" is tasked with depicting Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins — the Million Dollar Quartet. Good luck with that.

Enter Chad Michael Murray ("One Tree Hill," "Gilmore Girls") as Sun Records founder and producer Sam Phillips to almost save the day. His portrayal of Phillips is a bright spot that makes the series worth a look. He doesn't look like he is trying to play one of the most famous people of all time, and it serves him well. Newcomer Drake Milligan provides an admirable performance of Elvis Presley and Kevin Fonteyne stars as Johnny Cash in a performance I am not ready to call bad, but that I hope develops from here to the end of the eight-part series, which premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 23.

Set in Memphis in the 1950s, "Sun Records" takes a look at the birth of rock 'n' roll within the context of the civil rights movement. With Phillips' founding of the Memphis Recording Service (which would later become the world famous Sun Studios), future musical icons develop around him. Presley, Cash, Lewis and Perkins would come together on Dec. 4, 1956, with Phillips at the controls in a historical collaboration of rock 'n' roll pioneers. The beginning focuses on Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash in their early years, hoping for a break from the old order. Presley battles prejudice in Memphis while Cash takes on his own family's hatred in rural Dyess.

The production is based on a Tony Award-winning musical, and that immediately puts historical accuracy in the backseat in favor of the theatrical. Aggression-laden portrayals of Cash's father, Ray Cash, are nothing new, but in reality he was probably no rougher than any struggling Arkansas tenant farmer with a large family to feed and clothe during the 1930s, '40s and '50s. To incorporate the racial tensions of the day into the story, great liberty, sometimes hokey, is taken in several scenes, detracting from what could be a great bio-series centered around the explosion of these five musical legends. I couldn't help but wonder if it wasn't best left to a Broadway stage. The love scenes in the narrative seem gratuitous, too.

Despite its shortcomings, there are some good things about the show. The actresses that introduce us to Phillips' wife, Becky (Jennifer Holland), and his recording assistant, Marion Keisker (Margaret Anne Florence), play strong roles that temper the marked theatrical feel of the show. Impressively and surprisingly, the music itself is not a weak point. The only thing harder than acting like Elvis or Cash is sounding like them. Overall, "Sun Records" has promise. There's enough name recognition and star power in its characters to provide tons of potential, and the first episode's portrayal of Sam Phillips does just enough to make you want more. Its overt dramatization, though, clashes with what could be an intense, insightful look at how the roots of Memphis rock and blues developed against the background of the civil rights struggle, and that melodramatic treatment risks dismissal from a debut audience.

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