"Sun Records," an entertaining, eight-part miniseries premiering Thursday on CMT, is liberally based on the jukebox musical "Million Dollar Quartet," about the day in 1956 when Elvis Presley dropped by Sam Phillips' Memphis Recording Service in the middle of a Carl Perkins recording session (with Jerry Lee Lewis on piano). Johnny Cash showed up too. Songs, or parts of songs, were sung; tape rolled.
In the four episodes available for review, Perkins has yet to appear; nor, for that matter, has Sun Records itself, the company Phillips (Chad Michael Murray) founded when he tired of giving away artists he'd recorded, including B.B. King, to other labels. None of the main threads (including one that follows Billy Gardell's Col. Tom Parker) connect until the end of the fourth hour, when Presley (Drake Milligan), working for an electronics company, delivers a package to the studio.
Presley, yet to perform in public, is shown mostly mooning over a girl and dealing with neighbors less color blind than he. (The series is appropriately insistent on the black foundations of white American popular music.) Lewis and his constant companion, future evangelist Jimmy Swaggart — cousins in real life, played here by twins Christian and Jonah Lees — are like the goofy scamps in a high-school comedy (At one point they are literally hoisted by their collars by an irate preacher).
But their scenes sitting side by side at the piano have a feel of authentic discovery. Cash (Kevin Fonteyne ) is so far a quiet type; when he encounters his future first wife in a meet-cute roller rink collision, he says, "Hello, I'm J.R. Cash." All are on the run from a more constricted life toward a more open one.
While the musical numbers are all beautifully realized — everything seems to be performed live — the miniseries is more drama than musical; and as a drama it's more a sampler of Early Scenes from Great Lives than a deep or driven narrative. That is also its strength, in a way — the more casual the material, the more naturally it plays. The more serious things get, the more the writing resorts to cliché.
Phillips, whose story this mainly is, only matters to us as a man who loved music. For all the time the series spends on the triangular relationship between him, his wife Becky (Jennifer Holland) and his studio partner Marion Keisker (Margaret Anne Florence), his best scenes are those talking shop with fellow blues and R&B fan, disc jockey Dewey Phillips (no relation), played with hepcat gusto by Keir O'Donnell. They have an easy way with each other that makes even their most expository shared dialogue feel natural.
Like every biopic ever, "Sun Records" is not perfect history. Sometimes it's a lazy mistake, as when Elvis says he read "a little" of "On the Road" years before it was published. At other times, it rewrites the record for the sake of making a scene: When Ike Turner (Kerry Holliday) brought his band to Phillips' studio to record, the speaker in the guitarist's amplifier was indeed blown, but not because, as seen here, it was hit by a shotgun blast as Turner and his band drove away from a cafe where he'd grabbed the tip jar to pay for the session.
There are books, if you want to know the truth, and records, if you want to hear that truth.
Where: CMT, Nickelodeon and TV Land
When: 10 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-14-LS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and sex)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd