By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 9, 2013)
Head of programming: La Maison de la Radio
Do you remember the opening scene in the sci-fi film Contact? As the visual perspective pulls further and further away from Earth, an audio collage of radio and TV broadcasts moves further and further back in time, implying that our terrestrial broadcasts are like the Energizer Bunny (they keep going, and going, and going…). Which could mean that some ham radio enthusiast in the Andromeda Galaxy is only just now tuning into one of my 1973 broadcasts as a neophyte DJ (hopefully, the Inverse Square Law will save him from the aural agony of my 17 year-old self trying to sound like Mr. Boss Jock).
Everybody has to start somewhere, but radio is unique because you’re learning in public. You have an audience right out of the gate, privy to every embarrassing mispronunciation and clumsy technical gaffe. That’s why I reflexively squirmed in tandem with a neophyte news reader who endures a merciless word-by-word critique of his aircheck by the news director in the documentary La Maison de la Radio. This is one of the vignettes slickly edited to simulate a “day in the life” of Radio France (the French equivalent to NPR). While he inserts the odd interview segment that may jar you from your “fly on the wall” perch, director Nicolas Philibert utilizes the same meditative approach that informed his 2010 documentary Nenette.
In his previous documentary, Philibert’s subject was a taciturn female orangutan housed in a French zoo, who sat impassively behind a glass window, prompting self-absorbed visitors to chatter incessantly about everything and nothing, from banal observations to deep philosophical musings (the ape, of course, remains mum). In the opening of his new film, Philibert overlaps snippets of chatter by the various Radio France hosts, slowly escalating the collage into a sort of cacophonous overture for his piece. Then, he begins to deconstruct the din, until one host remains, informing listeners that “…today, I want to talk about everything…and nothing.” You see what Philibert did there? In this film, we are now the orangutan, sitting impassively on the other side of the screen while these folks who yak for a living chatter incessantly about everything…and nothing.
Unfortunately, what ensues becomes less of a philosophical treatise on the higher primate’s compulsion to communicate and more of a repetitive slog of multi-take voice-over sessions, non-contextualized snippets of on-air interviews and editorial meetings. The viewer doesn’t really gain any new insights regarding public radio, or the broadcast business (in fairness to the filmmaker, I’ve been in the radio biz for 40 years; so I will concede that what I perceive as just another boring day at the office could be fascinating to someone outside the industry). Francophiles may revel in the snob appeal of the culture-vulture elements (none of the luminaries were familiar to me).
On the plus side, Katell Djian’s cinematography is lovely; the best moments are when the action moves away from the endless corridors of the Pentagon-sized Radio France complex and out into the field. A correspondent and his driver hop aboard a scooter and cruise along with the cyclists to cover the Tour de France. A moment of Zen arrives as a sound engineer captures ambient night sounds of the forest with his parabolic mike (recalling the opener in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out). Sadly, these brief moments were not enough to quash my urge to start touching that dial before the end credits rolled.
Okay, so this week’s radio-themed film didn’t make me want to crank it on up, get on my bad motor scooter and ride. But here are my top 3 picks for movies about radio that do:
American Hot Wax– Floyd Mutrux’s energetic 1978 biopic about legendary Cleveland DJ Alan Freed (newfangled rock-n-roll’s first real cheerleader) may not be 100% historically accurate, but it’s 110% entertaining (and remains criminally unavailable in any home video format). The late (and underrated) Tim McIntire delivers a terrific, rock-solid performance as Freed, who courted controversy in the early 1950s for breaking new songs by African-American artists on his radio show (back when they were called “race records”) and for promoting “integrated” dance events and concerts. Great performance cameos from Chuck Berry, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. The film occasionally strays into superfluous goofiness, and it glosses over the 60s payola scandal that (sadly) destroyed Freed’s career, but McIntire commands your attention..
Comfort and Joy– A quirky trifle from Scottish writer-director Bill Forsyth (Gregory’s Girl, Local Hero). An amiable Glasgow radio personality (Bill Paterson) is dumped by his girlfriend on Christmas Eve (happy holidays!), which throws him into an existential crisis, causing him to take a sudden and urgent inventory of his personal and professional life. Soon after lamenting to his GM that he wants to do something more “important” than his chirpy morning show, serendipity drops him into the middle a of a hot scoop-a “war” between two rival ice-cream dairies. Chock full of Forsyth’s patented low-key anarchy and wry one-liners. As a former morning DJ, I can tell you that the scenes depicting “Dickie Bird” doing his show are quite authentic, which is rare on the screen. It might take several days to get that ice cream van’s loopy theme music out of your head.
FM– Admittedly a guilty pleasure, this uneven 1978 comedy-drama nonetheless makes my top 3 as a stellar time capsule of the era when the “underground FM” concept became co-opted by the money boys, opening the floodgates for the corporatized “Layla-Free Bird-Stairway” format that’s been flogging the same tiresome playlist since 1980. The story centers on fictional L.A. rock station “Q-Sky” FM, which has just shot to number one in the ratings, much to the elation of hip program director Jeff Dugan (Michael Brandon), who leads a team of colorful and free-spirited DJs (played with considerable verve by Martin Mull, Cleavon Little, Alex Karras and Eileen Brennan as a smoky-voiced after-hours host obviously based on real-life “Nightbird” Alison Steele). Unfortunately, what Dugan reads as validation for continuing the station’s “free form” approach, corporate HQ sees as a potential cash cow for landing big accounts like the U.S. Army (be all that you can be!). The battle lines between art and commerce have been drawn…and it’s on. A bit silly toward the end, but the cast is game, the soundtrack is great, and Linda Ronstadt and band are in fine form performing several live numbers.