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Renée Zellweger's First Starring Role Was in This 1994 TV Movie

Her co-star? None other than Howie Mandel.
  • Renee Zellweger and Howie Mandel in Shake, Rattle & Rock.
    Renee Zellweger and Howie Mandel in Shake, Rattle & Rock.

    Whether they're Tom Hanks, Al Pacino or Angelina Jolie, Hollywood's biggest stars all started somewhere. This week, Renée Zellweger's new limited TV series The Thing About Pam premieres on NBC. In it, the two-time Oscar-winning actress dons a regrettable fat suit to play the titular Pam Hupp, a Missouri woman who becomes embroiled in a murder plot. But this isn't Zellweger's first rodeo on television: she starred in the borderline campy Netflix drama What/If in 2019, and long before that, her first starring role was in in a little-seen made-for TV movie.

    The 1994 Showtime series Rebel Highway was a remarkably ambitious and esoteric creation, from the days when premium cable was still mostly movies and Tales from the Crypt. Inspired by the films of American International Films and producer Samuel Z. Arkoff, Rebel Highway was a series of ten remakes of B-movies from the 1950s. These movies, filled with James Dean types, fast cars, and girls just looking for trouble, attracted a surprisingly high caliber of filmmakers and a fascinating array of TV stars and future famouses. Episodes — which were actually feature-length films — were directed by the likes of Joe Dante, Mary Lambert, William Friedkin, and Robert Rodrigues, and starred, among others, Salma Hayek, Paul Rudd, Anne Heche, Adrien Brody, Jared Leto, and yes, a 25 year-old Renée Zellweger.

    Zellweger's installment, titled Shake, Rattle & Rock, is based on the 1956 movie of the same name, starring Mike Connors and Lisa Gaye, and with a cameo by Fats Domino. In the film, a disc jockey and — as the IMDb plot summary puts it — a "hipster" go up against a group of busybody parents who try to get rock 'n roll banned from radio. The 1994 version in Rebel Highway, directed by Allan Arkush (who'd go on to direct, among many other things, the NBC movie The Temptations as well as the Dawson's Creek "Detention" episode styled after The Breakfast Club), plays homage to the 1950s with a wink, if not fully a smirk. Zellweger plays Susane, a high school girl who's all about the rock 'n roll music and likes to dance it out with her friends on the local Bandstand-esque TV show. Her mom (Nora Dunn, with an extreme suburban-mom flip haircut) and her circle of friends disapprove of the sexualized music and dancing, not to mention the fact that the music program features Black performers. Meanwhile, Susanne wants to start a band with her friends Cookie (Patricia Childress) and Tony (Max Perlich), and all the while she's caught the eye of local greaser Lucky (John Doe).

    It's almost impossible to watch a movie like Shake, Rattle & Rock and not see parallels to Hairspray (either version). They're both cribbing from the same general story, with a young girl coming of age at a time when music and social politics were making her parents' generation very nervous. John Waters, of course, took things in his own very particular direction, with humor and calculated tastelessness, while the musical went its own, slightly more earnest way. Shake, Rattle & Rock at first seems like it's just trying to straightforwardly recapture the vibe of those '50s B-movies. Zellweger bursts into the opening scene lip-syncing to Little Richard's "The Girl Can't Help It" in a moment that seems to desperately want what Elisabeth Shue's opener in Adventures in Babysitting has. There's a stilted vibe to a lot of the scenes early on, giving it a bit of an after-school special feel.

    But as the film goes on, the eccentricities appear more and more intentional. Zellweger's singing voice, in particular, is dubbed so ostentatiously as to clearly be a wink. And then there's the casting. SNL veteran Nora Dunn is a comedic dog whistle, and Doe — from the '80s punk band X — is signalling a more knowing energy to the casting as well. Howie Mandel feels like obligatory star casting as the disc jockey (and ostensible Corny Collins of this whole endeavor) who tries to defend rock music from its detractors. Jenifer Lewis and Ruth Brown as the mom and aunt of one of a quartet of Black singers looking to make it as their own girl group certainly feel like they're over-qualified for their small roles. And as Dunn's cohorts, you've got Mary Woronov, veteran of Andy Warhol's Factory and the New York art-music scene, and P.J. Soles, famous for her roles in '70s horror classics like Carrie and Halloween. It's hard to tell sometimes if this is the movie trying to match the B-movie vibes or just copying off of John Waters's paper (Hairspray memorably featured the likes of Debbie Harry and Sonny Bono in small roles).

    As a movie, Shake, Rattle & Rock never fully comes into its own as either a comedic document or an homage to its original. As a time capsule of a young actress in the years just before she'd break through, it's fascinating. The next year, Zellweger would star in Empire Records as another rebellious teen who secretly wants to join a band. And the year after that, Jerry Maguire would change her career forever.

    Rebel Highway, meanwhile, only got that one season, though you almost wish, in this age of so much TV, some network or streaming platform would give this kind of idea a shot. Who knows what two-time Oscar winning actress it'll launch.

    Shake Rattle & Rock is available for rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV and Vudu.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Renée Zellweger, Showtime, Rebel Highway, The Thing About Pam, Howie Mandel, Nora Dunn