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MOVIE REVIEWS : PERILS OF ROCK STARDOM IN ‘THUNDER ALLEY’

Times Staff Writer

“Thunder Alley” (citywide) is an entirely amiable--but not entirely credible--little rock ‘n’ roll movie centering on a rural Arizona youth (Roger Wilson) having to choose between picking cotton or picking a guitar. (Not too difficult a choice, right?)

Having received reluctant permission from his farmer dad, Wilson joins a struggling group called Magic at the urging of one its members (Scott McGinnis). Signed by a Tucson rock promoter (Randy Polk), Magic hits the road along with its new manager, the tough but tender-hearted Weasel (Clancy Brown). It’s a grind, moving from one roadhouse to another, but there’s the hope that Polk will eventually book them into his Tucson club, which to them represents the big time.

There’s an appealing low-down grittiness to “Thunder Alley” and a smooth flow in the way writer-director J.S Cardone tells his story, doubtlessly drawing upon his own experiences in a rock band in the early ‘70s. But “Thunder Alley” flounders on the problem that beset “Blame It on the Night” and other movies dealing with the pleasures and perils of rock stardom: how to get audiences to believe their heroes really have what it takes to become rock stars.

There’s nothing magical about Magic--especially Wilson, who is handsome in a bland way that matches his on-stage impact. He just doesn’t have rock star charisma and talent, and worse yet, is stuck playing a character who’s essentially passive and seemingly lacking totally in drive. Not helping matters is that Wilson and his pals are unmistakably considerably older than the wet-behind-the-ears kids they’re playing.

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With a few twists “Thunder Alley” could easily have been the saga of a very ordinary group that Magic seems to be in the first place, not the extraordinary assemblage it’s pretending to be and which we’re supposed to believe it is. How far more refreshing that would have been than the “Star Is Born” rehash Cardone gives us, with Wilson hitting the heights while McGinnis, sidelined by self-doubt and drugs, hits the skids. McGinnis’ fate shakes up Wilson more than it should, since their closeness hasn’t been well established.

“Thunder Alley’s” second leads are allowed more edge, more individuality. As Wilson’s girlfriend, lovely Jill Schoelen is mainly asked to be sweet and innocent. But McGinnis is affecting in his portrayal of self-destructiveness and so is Cynthia Eilbacher as his flashy, feisty yet vulnerable girl. Leif Garrett is Magic’s singer, jealous of Wilson’s growing impact on audiences.

P.S.: If “Thunder Alley” (rated R for strong language, some nudity and drugs) sounds vaguely familiar, it’s understandable. Back in 1967 Fabian and Annette Funicello starred in a ludicrous stock car-racing movie of the same name.


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