Based on the late Sonny Bono’s autobiography of the same name, And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story transcends mere mediocrity through sheer force of schlock vindictiveness. A TV movie whose coexecutive producer is Bono’s widow, Congresswoman Mary Bono, And the Beat Goes On is designed less to make Sonny look like a saint than to make Cher look like a cruel ingrate.
From the point of view of this telefilm, Sonny was ambitious, slightly goofy, but single-minded in making Cherilyn LaPierre Sarkisian a star, and how did she repay his efforts? By suing him for divorce, citing ”involuntary servitude.” ”You couldn’t file for ‘irreconcilable differences’ like everybody else?” asks Sonny, played by Jay Underwood, looking incredulously at the legal papers. ”You were my slave?” ”That’s how it felt, Son,” says Cher, played by Renee Faia. ”Trapped.”
You may feel trapped too, watching this peculiar production. It’s notably cheap-looking, misses the opportunities it raises to offer vivid portraits of unique pop-music moguls ranging from Phil Spector (Christian Leffler) to David Geffen (Mahryah Shain), and is frequently padded out by full-length versions of Sonny and Cher hits such as ”I Got You Babe” and the film’s title song. (The soundtrack is a combination of original Sonny and Cher tracks and decent impersonations of same by Jess Harnell and Kelly Vanhoose Smith.) Most eccentrically, teleplay author Ellen Weston has structured the movie as a flashback Sonny has while appearing on David Letterman’s show (Letterman is played by Tom Frykman, but what Frykman really does is ape the Letterman impersonation John Michael Higgins did in the 1996 HBO movie The Late Shift).
Underwood’s Sonny tells the tale via clichéd voice-over narration (”I never quit tryin”’; ”I learned 20 new things a day, but it was never enough”), and while the actor does a good job reproducing Sonny’s nasal whine, Underwood lacks Bono’s knack for the insincere grin that communicated his self-knowledge — that he’d built a career on hustle and luck. Instead, Underwood plays Sonny as a perpetually shocked parvenu, amazed that he was writing hit songs and had scored a good-looking girl as both life partner and meal ticket.
Given the source material, it is inevitable that Cher is presented as Sonny’s creation, and the movie stops dead after the duo’s hits and their ’70s variety show. (No mention is made of the flop Sonny Comedy Revue Bono attempted in 1974, after splitting with Cher.) A title appears on the screen: ”Palm Springs 14 Years Later,” and it’s a call from a Letterman booker, bringing the movie full circle. But that 14-year gap contains the lie of And the Beat Goes On: Cher went on to have solo hits that had nothing to do with Sonny, and with her own hard work and hustle, she turned herself into an Oscar-winning actress. By some accounts, including this one, she may be a difficult diva, but you’ve gotta admire the real Cher — even now, she’s managed to resuscitate her career with a hit disco single, ”Believe,” and lip-synching the national anthem at this year’s Super Bowl.
The movie wants you to side with Bono, but even the performances betray him. Where Underwood’s Sonny is vague, Faia’s Cher is uncanny — she gets the flat, sarcastic voice and the eye-rolling, head-wagging sarcasm of her subject down cold. Toward the end, the shameless producers have Faia do a voice-over rendition of Cher’s tearful eulogy delivered soon after Sonny’s death last year in a skiing accident. Coming when it does in the movie, Cher’s real-life words are used to suggest that she was wrong and he was right — she never should have left him. We’re shown footage of the real Sonny Bono in his latter-day incarnation as Palm Springs politico as if to confirm his value to the world, but I had more respect for Bono in the role that And the Beat Goes On botches — as a scrappy, proudly commercial songwriter and producer who created a few terrific singles with a deep-voiced, skinny, sarcastic girl as his muse. C-