`Beat Goes On' is a bit of a hustle

Preview: I don't know if all this is true, but baby, baby, baby ... who cares?

February 22, 1999|By DAVID ZURAWIK | DAVID ZURAWIK,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

"I guess it really started in 1961," Sonny Bono (Jay Underwood) says in voice-over at the start of "And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story" tonight on ABC.

"Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth's record that year. Chubby Checker was twisting at the Peppermint Lounge, and I was delivering meat."

That's as much social history or context as we get in this screwy film about the mom-and-pop singing duo from the 1960s and '70s. And even this isn't factually correct. It was Joey Dee and the Starlighters who were twisting at the Peppermint Lounge in 1961. In fact, Dee owned the nightclub and recorded a song called "Peppermint Twist."

But what are facts anyway in the genre the networks call "fact-based biopic"? And who wants to quibble over facts when we are dealing with figures of such mythic proportion as Cher and the late Sonny Bono?

After all, the film is based on Bono's autobiography, "And the Beat Goes On," and co-executive-produced by his wife at the time of his death, U.S. Rep. Mary Bono, who replaced him in Congress.

If you can't trust Hollywood docu-dramatists and members of Congress to get the facts straight and tell the truth, well, my friend, I think there's probably something wrong with you.

The point of Sonny's little opening voice-over is to tell us how improbable the rags-to-riches saga we are about to witness is and how anybody can become rich and famous overnight with a little talent, hard work and a lot of hustle. The most truthful moment of his voice-over comes with Sonny saying, "It seems like I was always hustling." You were, Sonny, right into the hallowed halls of Congress.

His first hustle was to get a route as meat delivery man that would take him to the neighborhoods in Los Angeles that housed such small independent record labels as Specialty. A jack-of-all-trades job at Specialty led to a friendship that led to an introduction to a 17-year-old named Cherilyn Sarkisian LaPierre, a.k.a. Cher.

They met in a lesbian bar. Sonny watched Cher dance with another woman and fell in love. Well, he fell in something with her anyway. We know this because the camera shows us Sonny's face as he gazes adoringly on the dancing Cher. Then it cuts to Cher and shows her moving in slow motion on the all-girl dance floor. The moment is treated as if it were somehow epic -- like Roy Hobbs rounding the bases after his home run in "The Natural."

The rest really is history, or what we have come to treat as history in our debased, celebrity-mad, media culture these days. There's Sonny, who knows only three chords, plunking out the raw structure of "I've Got You Babe" on a beat-up piano in their garage. Then it transforms into the full-blown recorded sound as a montage of Billboard charts, screaming crowds and moments from TV shows like "Shindig" whiz past. All that's missing are calendar pages flashing across the screen to suggest the meteoric rise of Sonny and Cher to the top of the pop world.

But mountain high, valley deep, to paraphrase the great Phil Spector, who, by the way, Sonny worked for. What goes up, must come down, or what kind of story would we have?

Life gets lonely at the top, and, before long, Cher is sleeping with guitar players, and Sonny is getting creepy-clingy and kind of pathetic. Poor, sad Cher. Poor, lonely Sonny. Poor, little baby Chastity. Poor, poor Elvis, missing his mama and his dead twin brother and everything. Whoops, wrong made-for-TV biopic.

In case you haven't guessed, I hate this film. But I suppose I should say something nice about it: Renee Faia does a great impersonation of Cher. She's got the look down cold, while Kelly Van Hoose Smith delivers the Cher voice. Together they'd make a nice five minutes or so of a Las Vegas act.

As far as them carrying a two-hour film, ABC should have taken some of the money it spent on a much ballyhooed cross-country talent search and spent it instead on a script.

Sonny and Cher, When: 9-11 tonight

Where: ABC (WMAR, Channel 2)

Pub Date: 2/22/99

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