Sunday, September 14, 2014

FM (1978)

Director: John A. Alonzo                                Writer: Ezra Sacks
Music: Steely Dan                                          Cinematography: David Myers
Starring: Michael Brandon, Cassie Yates, Eileen Brennan and Martin Mull

FM is the quintessential seventies film. It has it all, sex, drugs and rock and roll, and is set to a soundtrack that became the compilation album of the late seventies. The ultimate irony of the film is that it was also the purest example of the exact kind of corporate cynicism that the film purportedly attempted to expose. Even the title song of the film, provided by the anti-corporate duo Steely Dan, is a not-so-subtle dig at the FM airwaves that played “nothing but blues and Elvis and somebody else’s favorite song,” free from any kind of controversy, “no static at all,” and yet was one of that radio frequency’s biggest hits that year and made even more money for their corporate patrons. But the ultimate sell-out was that the film became the basis for one of the most popular and insipid sit-coms of the seventies, WKRP in Cincinnati, though the producers claimed otherwise. Still, the film itself evokes a simpler time with simpler music and a clearer distinction between the corporate world that was just beginning to stretch its tentacles into the everyday lives of consumers and a culture that still seemed as if it had a choice about whether or not to submit to the full immersion that was coming down the road.

The film begins in the early morning at an L.A. radio station, QSKY, with DJ Cleavon Little about to head home. However his relief, Michael Brandon, is still at home and Little gives him exactly one song, “Life in the Fast Lane,” to get to the studio before there’s nothing but dead air going out over the airwaves. Of course, he just makes it. At a staff meeting later in the day, he tells the other DJs that the corporation that owns the station is sending in a new sales manager to get big accounts and run lots of commercials. The station has always prided itself on catering to their audience with minimal commercials and sees a conflict coming. Meanwhile their other conflict is with the giant commercial station in town, KLAX, who is putting on a Linda Ronstadt concert. Brandon plans on hijacking the concert and broadcasting it live without the other station knowing. In the meantime he has a DJ, Alex Karas, who isn’t doing a good job, and a studio tech, Jay Fenichel, who wants to be a DJ, and the over sexed DJ Martin Mull who has a nervous breakdown in the studio and barricades himself in. And this is in addition to advertising exec Tom Tarpey who descends on the station to fill the airwaves with commercials from the U.S. Army, the last sponsor the station would want to advertise.

The film is standard seventies fare, but even so there’s a lot to like about it. There is a personal appearance at Tower Records--remember them?-- with REO Speedwagon and an interview in the station with Tom Petty. There are also two concert sections, the first featuring Jimmy Buffet and the second with Linda Ronstadt, including a song that’s not on the soundtrack album. This is Martin Mull’s first film performance and he does a terrific job with the kind of egotistical character he would become associated with throughout his career. The on-air breakdown is brilliant, especially the ending with Michael Brandon. Clevon Little, who opens the film, unfortunately has little else to do for the remainder of the picture. Alex Karas as the cowboy DJ Doc Holiday does a nice job up until he’s forced into the clichéd role of gun toting sad sack. Eileen Brenan is great in her brief appearances as the sultry Mother, tucking everyone into bed on the night shift but unfulfilled in her work. And it’s great to see Tom Tarpey, who would have a brief but memorable role in Albert Brooks’ Lost in America. Michael Brandon holds down the center in a film full of eccentrics, and Cassie Yates is solid in support as his fellow DJ and girlfriend.

The best part of the film for most of the running time is the verisimilitude. The station feels like a real radio station and the way that the music is dubbed in with a lot of echo adds to that effect. The exteriors outside the studio in the daylight, like when Brandon is driving to work, are also good. The problem comes at the end of the film, with the standoff. At that point the exteriors become a very obvious studio set and even the presence of the great Norman Lloyd as the owner of the station can’t save it, especially with his fake Southern accent. Director John Alonzo had been a television actor during the sixties before moving into cinematography in the early seventies, where he was nominated for an Academy Award for his work on Chinatown. This was his first feature film and he only directed a few TV movies after this before returning to the camera. This is not a great film, but it has something that few other later films ever achieved. Films like Dazed and Confused attempt to capture the seventies with limited success. FM is a slice out of time that takes back those of us who lived it in a way that modern recreations could never do. And the music is incomparable.

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