Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ether On Celluloid: Movies About Radio

In an earlier post—actually, the inaugural post for I STILL Love Radio—I shared a list of my favorite books about radio. It was a worthwhile exercise to cull through the hundreds of titles in the canon of radio lit going back roughly 85 years, and it was no trouble to come up with a decent list of the best titles. In trying to do the same for movies about radio (other than documentaries), I found the task a bit more onerous.

Just coming up with a comprehensive list was a challenge—going from memory, Googling, and conducting keyword searches on that turned up dozens of obscure titles (and lots of shorts) from the 1930s and 1940s. Then, it was disappointing to find that Netflix doesn’t stock some surprisingly mainstream titles (The Hucksters, FM). Thank goodness for Seattle’s Scarecrow Video!

A few other things I noticed in compiling the list below:

1. For some reason, movies about radio were really big in 1987 and 1988, when three films were released by major studios: Good Morning, Vietnam; Radio Days; and Talk Radio. My theory is that demographic forces were at work—probably the usual culprits (in the case of Good Morning, Vietnam and Talk Radio: aging baby boomers who grew up with 1950s and 1960s deejays and were, at that time, avid talk radio listeners in the days before megapartisan, syndicated talk) along with the generation immediately prior to the boomers (who, like Woody Allen, fondly remembered the waning days of network radio).

2. There were no movies about radio (that I can find) made in the 1950s or 1960s. In the 1950s, radio was written off as a dying medium, of course, until it was co-opted by the youth movement (those damned baby boomers again) with the help of enterprising station owners around the country. In the 1960s, radio people were too busy doing radio (and taking drugs, of course) to have time to make films. Along came the 1970s, the hangover from the excesses of the 1960s, and, finally, a collective sense of mortality and then, boom, time to make movies about radio again.

3. Movies about radio are a bad idea! Film is too visual a medium to do justice to radio, which works best without visuals (plus, there’s never any gum stuck beneath your seat in the Theatre of the Mind). I think I’ll stick to my books about radio. Now, if there were to be a book about movies about radio (follow that?), I’d be all over it. Maybe I’ll write one. It’d also be fun to do a radio documentary about radio movies (think of the fabulous audio cuts!), and to do a “radio film festival” and screen a bunch of these films for a real-live audience. Hmmm.

So, the chronological list that follows is a highly subjective inventory of mainstream movies where radio plays more than a minor role. I haven’t seen all of them, and some don’t appear easy to find on DVD. Please let me know if there are other films that should be listed here, or if you disagree with my take on any of the films listed.

In my search, I found several other films that will probably eventually be added to this list once I’ve had a chance to watch. I’ll also compile a list of films where radio plays a minor though important role—think of the scene at the radio station with Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti. Know of anymore like that? Please let me know. One astute reader has already suggested Vanishing Point (1971). Any others?

The I STILL Love Radio List of Radio Movies

Talk to Me (2007)
I haven’t seen this one yet. I meant to, but you know how it goes. Don Cheadle is a terrific actor, but it’s been a busy year. This film is at the top of my Netflix queue and should be in my mailbox any day now.

A Prairie Home Companion (2006)
In what was to be his last film, director Robert Altman went behind the scenes at the Fitzgerald Theatre in St. Paul, MN with this paean to Garrison Keillor (who wrote the screenplay) and all things Prairie Home. The storyline and phony characters are distracting from the real attraction—spotting the real PHC radio folks playing minor characters and extras. I have fond memories of seeing this film at The Rose Theatre in Port Townsend, Washington. The Rose (and adjoining Rosebud) are easily one of the best cinemas in the United States.

Da Station (2006)
Never seen it, never heard of it. But it’s on my Netflix queue now.

KHIP/High Freakquency (1998)
A double feature, neither of which I’ve seen, one of which is set in my hometown (Seattle). It’s on my Netflix queue.

Private Parts (1997)
Prototypical shock jock and omnimedia sensation Howard Stern’s life story comes to the silver screen. I like Howard Stern in small doses (couldn’t do it every day), and this film is interesting as a historical document for how many people involved in Stern’s show play themselves.

Love Serenade (1996)
I haven’t seen this one, either (I had never heard of it before I started compiling this list). Appears to be an Australian chick flick with radio as a major plot device, setting and character development tool. It’s on my Netflix queue (though admittedly not too high).

Power 98 (1996)
I have not seen this Eric Roberts flick about some kind of murder mystery involving a radio station and had never heard of it before. Not sure if I’ll see it anytime soon as it’s not available on Netflix and doesn’t sound that interesting to me.

Radioland Murders (1994)
This George Lucas-produced film somehow got by me the first time around and ever since. Maybe I was busy in 1994? The film is set in 1939 Chicago at a newly launching radio network (sounds pretty esoteric and appealing already). Have you ever seen it? Should I put in on my Netflix queue?

Straight Talk (1992)
Dolly Parton channels Doctor Ruth and Doctor Laura in this largely forgotten film. I know I saw it when it came out, but I have no recollection of it. It kind of blends together in my mind with Switching Channels, a His Girl Friday remake (transplanted from publishing to TV) with Burt Reynolds painfully attempting to pull off Cary Grant-suave.

Pump Up The Volume (1990)
A film about terrestrial pirate radio is so 90s! Christian Slater is live on the mic from the bedroom of his parents’ split-level suburban home for this small wattage tale of big teen angst. In the remake, he’ll be a podcaster or maybe streaming live on the web (which strikes me as far less romantic than live and local broadcasting).

Tune In Tomorrow (1990)
Another film I somehow missed the first time around and ever since. I like Peter Falk (who apparently stars as a 1950s radio writer in New Orleans) and have put it on my Netflix queue.

Talk Radio (1988)
Eric Bogosian’s creepy play based on murdered KOA Denver talk show host Alan Berg comes to life on the big screen. Without the eerily absorbing and compelling Bogosian behind the mic, this film would be nothing but a radio-based melodrama.

Good Morning, Vietnam (1987)
Robin Williams will always be Mork to me—I loved Mork & Mindy the first couple of seasons it was on and was a devoted fan (I ordered the Scholastic fan book in fourth grade, bought the special gum that came in a white plastic egg, mourned the rumored death (promulgated by AM top 40 radio) of Robin Williams circa 1980, and successfully found the Mork & Mindy house on my own, without directions from anyone on a trip to Boulder, Colorado a decade ago). But I digress. Mork gets a haircut and goes to Vietnam in this movie based on and Armed Forces Radio and Television Service deejay Adrian Cronauer. The love story is phony and distracting, but Williams’ on-air shtick is hysterical.

Radio Days (1987)
Writer/director Woody Allen’s nostalgic take on the role radio played in middle class households in the 1940s (which, not coincidentally, was not unlike the role played by TV in middle class households in the 1950s up through the 1990s—though, naturally, far less romantically with all the make-up, cameras and hot lights). Wallace Shawn steals the show as a creepy radio star.

Murrow (1986)
Unlike the George Clooney film Good Night and Good Luck (2005), this low-budget (though ambitious) cable TV Edward R. Murrow biopic covers Murrow's "This . . . is London!" days of World War II. However, Daniel J. Travanti is no David Strathairn.

On The Air Live With Captain Midnight (1979)
Not sure if this one qualifies as a mainstream film, but I like the description on Netflix and have put it on my queue.

American Hot Wax (1978)
A biopic of seminal deejay and payola martyr Alan "Moondog" Freed. I saw it on TV a long time ago, and apparently won't be seeing it again anytime soon, as it has never been released on VHS or DVD.

FM (1978)
I confess that I have never seen this movie, even though the title track by Steely Dan is one of my favorite songs. This one’s not available on Netflix. No static at all!

The Night That Panicked America (1975)
I remember when this TV movie—not sure if they used the word “docudrama” in those days—premiered in 1975, and I may have seen it again as a rerun sometime later in the 1970s. The film looks back to the night of October 30, 1938 when Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater production of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds on CBS sent an estimated one million people into a panic. This film was written by “War of the Worlds” scriptwriter Howard Koch (be sure to check out Koch’s early 1970s paperback book Panic Broadcast for more about What Really Happened). Not available on Netflix.

Play Misty For Me (1971)
A rabid fan (Jessica Walter) takes her interest in a Carmel, California deejay (former Carmel mayor Clint Eastwood) and his radio show to violent extremes (back in the good old days when listeners were VERY attached to their favorite stations and jocks). This film is from Mr. Eastwood’s Golden Era of the early 1970s, when he sported 50,000 watt sideburns. This is also the first film directed by Eastwood.

The Hucksters (1947)
The book and movie versions of The Hucksters (which effectively looked under the rocks of the advertising industry, sponsors and the radio business in the postwar era) caused such a stir that researchers devoted special studies to the effect that each had on radio listeners (see Paul Lazarsfeld’s Radio Listening in America: The People Look at Radio Again). Clark Gable stars as a disillusioned ad man who must choose between financial success and self-worth. Surprisingly not available on Netflix.

The Great American Broadcast (1941)
I stumbled across this film on and was pleasantly surprised to find it available via Netflix. It’s in my queue and I’ll let you know.

The Big Broadcast of 1938 (1938)
The final in a series of “Big Broadcast” films of the 1930s featuring radio and vaudeville acts strung loosely together. I saw it as a child 35+ years ago, and remember a zeppelin or other airship figuring prominently. Bob Hope sings Thanks for the Memory, the hit song that would soon become his theme song for life. I plan to watch it again soon. Also surprisingly available on Netflix.

Death at Broadcasting House (1934)
I’ve never seen this one, but I sure would love to! Val Gielgud (brother of famed actor John) co-wrote the script (and the book upon which it is based) with fellow BBC producer Eric Maschwitz. Val, head of BBC Radio Drama for three decades (and author of a number of great books about radio drama), plays a version of himself in the film, which concerns a real-live murder taking place during a murder scene in a radio play. Not available on Netflix.

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