A Piece of the Rock

To its credit, Shout never pretends to be anything but a mealy-minded tribute to the liberating power of rock and roll. All this talk about music soothing the savage breast overlooks the fact that more often than not it's used to inflame that very same breast. You know that feeling - when red-blooded American kids hear a backbeat and burn to use it, when those tired old Sousa marches and treacly televised quartets bounce feebly off swollen teen libidos. And if you haven't felt the self-actualizing rush yourself, you've experienced it vicariously through any number of rock-music-as-coming-of-age metaphors, from American Graffiti to Footloose to Rock and Roll High School.

Safe inside the plush housing of a time-tried theme, this amiable Fifties period piece is still nothing to shout about. The kids destined for change in Jeffrey Hornaday's (he was the choreographer for Flashdance and the film version of A Chorus Line) feature directorial debut are Jesse Tucker (newcomer James Walters) and Sara Benedict (Heather Graham, who was the ill-fated Nadine in Gus van Sant's Drugstore Cowboy and the equally ill-fated girlfriend of Agent Dale Cooper on Twin Peaks). He's a chronic hard-ass sent to a boys' school in Clarity, a pinpoint town in vast, dusty Texas. She's the beautiful college daughter of the strict headmaster (Richard Jordan). Jesse admires Sara from behind his protective cockiness, and Sara perceives his gentler self. A mismatched pair of kids finding that their groins are humming for each other? Maybe Hornaday's really on to something.

But Shout isn't all about entering new versions of old variables into the traditional couple-made-in-hell formula. It's also about the other boys at the Benedict School, and how their lives are turned turvy, thrown into tumult, even changed forever by the simple evolution of rhythm and blues. If Joe Gayton's script camps out on the same ground as zillions of other films, it at least has the sense to personify the blood-lusty newness of rock music. Jack Cabe (John Travolta), the new music teacher at the school, arrives mysteriously from parts North and gets right down to business, preparing the hapless school band for the all-important Fourth of July concert. But one night the Benedict boys hear a strange sound snaking from the windows of Cabe's cottage, and they're hooked. Screw this oom-pah-pah. They want beat, and they want chords.

Although Cabe aches to energize his young charges, he's wary of the disapproval of the school's sole administrator, and Mr. Benedict quickly shows himself as the sort of regressive ogre whose very intractability makes character identification a moot point. You can think Travolta's a talentless goon, you can chuckle inside at Walters's rebel-without-a-clause inarticulation or Graham's winsome moon-face, but you cannot deny these kids the right to rock and roll. Cabe understands this, so he keys them into an underground Memphis radio show, and he instructs them in a few basic chords. Faces light up. Adult passions emerge. Things move along swimmingly.

For all the foreplay, the Benedict Boys School band never gets to rock out the way the movie hints it might. In The Commitments, the other current film about a ragtag bunch of song-crazed troublemakers, director Alan Parker had the good sense to stuff his film full of music. When it remembers to demonstrate the power of this new music, Shout does have some energy, especially in a rousing juke-joint scene that features a pair of performances by Linda and Cecil Womack. But the rest of the film's music is either absurd, such as an impromptu harmonica rap by Cabe, or anachronistic. Yeah, maybe talented artists like John Hiatt, Tommy Conwell, and Robbie Robertson understand how Fifties rock provided the foundation for all the guitar-mad songwriters who followed, but grafting Robertson's eerie, synth-drenched "Fallen Angel" or his angular "Showdown at Big Sky" onto the retro Texas landscape is less an inspired discontinuity than a silly oversight. This may indeed be a movie about the birth of rock and roll, but it's a breech birth, and the baby's, well, a little slow.

The disturbing lack of kinetic presence is partially offset by the intriguingly hazy cinematography of Robert Brinkmann. But ultimately, the characters must carry their own weight, and the tension among Jesse, Sara, and Mr. Benedict (not to mention a carbon-copy triangle that involves Cabe, a sultry local club owner, and her estranged boyfriend) isn't interesting enough to sustain the length of the film. In a last-ditch effort to salvage audience interest, Shout spirals foolishly into an overwrought explanation of Cabe's shady past, but the movie is over at least 40 minutes before it's over. And in its aftermath, it leaves a sour taste. Enjoyable as musical budding may be, especially when it's a clear surrogate for adolescent mattress-thumping, feeling good about a half-dozen kids learning to rock somehow seems traitorous in a world where Miles Davis is dead.

 
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