DJs on Film
To mark the forthcoming release of Focus Features’ Pirate Radio, Nick Dawson presents a comprehensive look at how the movies see disc jockeys.
In 1935, when Walter Winchell first coined the term “disk jockey” to describe the role of Martin Block, a radio announcer who became the first luminary of the medium. In the 1950s, the advent of rock ‘n’ roll brought about the emergence of the first true stars of the radio world, DJs like Alan Freed, Wolfman Jack and Dick Biondi. But it wasn’t until the early 1970s that Hollywood first began its fascination with the DJ, making him a prominent figure in a range of films such as Richard C. Sarafian’s road movie Vanishing Point (1971), Bob Rafelson’s family drama The King of Marvin Gardens (1972) and Clint Eastwood’s thriller Play Misty For Me (1973).
Focus Features’ new film Pirate Radio is the raucously funny portrait of an illicit 1960s British rock ‘n’ roll station broadcasting from a boat in the middle of the North Sea. And to celebrate the forthcoming release of writer-director Richard Curtis’ loving look back at DJs in the good old days, FilmInFocus is embarking on a comprehensive journey through the back catalogue of movies about radio’s tune spinners and shock jocks. In this multi-part article, Nick Dawson looks at movies in which DJs are narrative devices, objects of desire and heroes in peril, and then turns his attention to DJ biopics, movies about pirate radio, and films about DJs who venture beyond the realm of the broadcasting booth.
Part 1: DJs Tie it All Together
When asked by an interviewer about the almost wall-to-wall pop songs in his movie Coming Home, director Hal Ashby said, “I was planning to hire a good FM DJ to come on at the beginning of the film and introduce a radio program which would last for the next two hours.” Ashby ultimately didn’t have the budget to do this, but he was onto an idea that has been used very successfully in a number of other movies, namely that a DJ in a movie can be used as a very effective narrative device. Indeed, you don’t have to look any further than Quentin Tarantino’s debut film Reservoir Dogs to see this exact idea put into practice. The film’s opening credits are set to the sound of a DJ (Steven Wright) on "K-Billy's Super Sounds of the Seventies," a show which is referenced several times throughout the film and ties together the film’s soundtrack elements. The DJ is there to provide segues from one song to the other, but is also used as a segue from one scene or sequence to another.
This narrative device has been used in a number of films to pull together unrelated plotlines and provide a smooth transition from one story to another. For example, in the 1998 movie Outside Ozona, what unites the characters in the film’s multiple strands – apart from the fact that they are under threat from the same serial killer! – is that they are all listening to DJ Dix Mayal (bluesman Taj Mahal) on the local radio station. This narrative conceit provides director J.S. Cardone with a simple and effective way of cutting from one story strand to another, as we see one character after another reacting to DJ Dix’s rebellious on air antics. Rob Reiner’s opinionated radio therapist in Bye Bye Love (1995) is used in a the three main characters all listen to him––although he becomes an active part of the action in the later stages of the movie when Randy Quaid’s character invades the studio to (literally) attack him for his views.
The DJ can also act as something of a Greek chorus, such as in the cult road movie Vanishing Point (1971), in which social commentary and philosophizing is provided by the blind but very forthcoming DJ Super Soul (Cleavon Little). Little’s words leave us in very little doubt about just how symbolic the pursuit of the rebellious folk hero Kowalski (Barry Newman) and the entire country’s police force is. Similarly, Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing (1989) movie opens on Samuel L. Jackson as Mister Señor Love Daddy, the local Bed-Stuy DJ on We Love Radio, a figure who acts as a quasi-narrator throughout the course of the film’s (literally) heated action.
In movies, the DJ can also be a handy facilitator, the man whose access to the mass populace gives him power to pull the strings, as in American Graffiti (1973) where real-life DJ Wolfman Jack helps Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) make contact with the mystery blonde who mouthed “I love you” to him. Or in Trick or Treat (1986), where DJ Nuke (Kiss’ Gene Simmons) gives the hero only copy of his favorite rocker’s final unreleased album, a record which––when brings the singer back from the dead.
Part 2: DJ as Object of Desire
Maybe it’s because they’re young, maybe it’s because they’re successful and famous, maybe it’s because they have great voices, or maybe it’s because they play killer tunes. But whichever way you figure it, movie DJs certainly do get a lot of love from their listeners, often in a pretty direct way. Probably the first and most famous example of the DJ as a target of affection is Clint Eastwood’s Play Misty For Me (1973), in which the director-star stars as radio DJ Dave Garver, a man whose number one fan Evelyn Draper (Jessica Walter), takes her obsessive love for him just a little too far. Though things start of with her making regular requests for the jazz standard “Misty” (hence the title), she ultimately takes Eastwood’s girlfriend hostage after her jealousy has pushed her over the edge into madness.
While Misty paved the way for other films about insanely jealous women (such as Fatal Attraction), DJ lust became a lot safer––if significantly more X-rated––in the loose remake “Play My Song,” a segment of the 1985 porn portmanteau movie Private Fantasies V. In the only plot synopsis available, it states that the film is about “a disc-jockey who gets his flute played by a talented, new throat.” Much more wholesome was The Truth About Cats and Dogs (1996), in which the Cyrano de Bergerac storyline is adapted for the radio world: Ben Chaplin’s lovelorn Brit falls for the voice of his favorite radio pet expert Janeane Garofalo, but Garofalo, afraid Chaplin will think she has the proverbial “face for radio,” gets gorgeous Uma Thurman to be wooed by him in her stead.
Someone who does rather have a face for radio is Ken Sherry (George Shevtsov) in Australian movie Love Serenade (1996), a DJ who arrives in a small outback town, but despite his unconventional looks immediately becomes the source of sibling rivalry between Vicki-Ann Hurley (Rebecca Frith) and her quirky, misunderstood sister Dimity (Miranda Otto). In the 2002 Hong Kong romcom Siu chan chan (And I Hate You So), a (reassuringly handsome) DJ protagonist is thrust into a classic Shakespearian scenario in which mutual animosity between the make and female leads eventually turns to romantic passion. The film is the story of a misogynistic DJ (Aaron Kwok) and a ballsy journalist (Kelly Chen) who begin a very public media war against each other but surprise everyone by finding love together.
Part 3: DJs in Peril
The job of a DJ has a modicum of glamour, but to make stories of DJs that bit more compelling on film, Hollywood has commonly thrown in a large dose of danger. While Play Misty for Me hinted at the perils DJs could face, the 1977 action thriller Redneck Miller took it to a whole different level. The eponymous hero (Geoffrey Land) is a country music spinner who falls foul of the “Black Mafia,” a gang of African-American drug dealers, partly because the misogynistic womanizer slept with the one of the pushers' girlfriends. Miller ultimately deals with the problem by getting drunk and using force to find solve his problems. In a particularly charming scene, Miller is caught in bed by one of the dealers who assumes that the woman is his girlfriend. He threatens to rape her, Miller says that's OK with him, as she's not his girlfriend one of his best friends' wives. (When called on this by the woman, he replies "Baby, you can take a lot of lovin', but I can only get killed once.")
While Miller encounters danger beyond the confines of the station, the 1978 film FM showed that just being at work was a liability in itself. The movie, a showcase for great 70s music and musical appearances by Linda Ronstadt and Jimmy Buffett, was about DJs at an L.A. radio station who go on strike rather than agree to run ads for the army. When they lock themselves in the station, they come under attack from the police, but when a DJ saves a cop from falling off a ledge, the whole incident is peacefully resolved. This rather wholesome affair pales in comparison with the skuzzy Power 98 (1996), in which a rookie DJ (Jason Gedrick) is framed for murder and nearly poisoned by––shock! horror!––another DJ, specifically his on-air partner, a star shock jock played by Eric Roberts. The very convoluted plot hinges on fake confessions which are in fact real and involve a fake friend of Roberts, who turns out to be Roberts himself.
While Power 98 told the story of an arrogant, highly unlikable DJ looking to cause the death of a colleague, in the 2005 Japanese chiller Bûsu (The Booth), it’s the unlikable DJ whose life is at risk. When obnoxious talk show host Shogo (Ryuta Sato) is forced to broadcast his show out of Studio 6––which has remained unused since another DJ committed suicide in there––he soon gets spooked by eerie callers and fears that the curse of the booth will claim him too. That, however, is nothing compared to the frights put on the protagonist in the excellent recent release Pontypool, the latest film from Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald. The smart, highly enjoyable flick is all about an aging bad boy DJ (Stephen McHattie) working for a radio station in a remote Ontario town who tries to save himself (and the rest of the listening public) from a zombie virus which being spread through the spoken word.
In 1981, director Alexis Kanner’s Kings and Desperate Men started a very odd trend of movies that revolve around DJs being taken hostage. In the tense action drama, Patrick McGoohan's Canadian talk show host has his studio stormed by a group of terrorists who are aggrieved as they feel that one of their number was unjustly sent to jail––and demand a retrial live on air. (To make things that bit more tense, they also take McGoohan's wife and daughter hostage.) In 1994's Airheads, a similar scenario was treated with a degree more levity as heavy metal rockers Brendan Fraser, Adam Sandler and Steve Buscemi try to force DJ Joe Mantegna to play their demo on his show. But when the tape gets destroyed in the machine, they pull their guns (which are actually water pistols) on Mantegna, holding him hostage until another copy of the tape can be delivered and put on the air. The same scenario was once again played out for thrills in Captive Audience, a 1999 US indie film shot in moody black and white in which a small-town DJ called Jack the Ripper has his show hijacked by a gun-toting lunatic for reasons that are not immediately clear.
If a movie DJ can avoid being held hostage in the radio station that’s a good sign, but they are hardly out of the woods as they need to keep an eye out for stalkers and obsessive fans. In 1998, The Night Caller put a feminine spin on the Play Misty for Me premise with a plot about an emotionally fragile young woman, Beth Needham (Tracy Nelson), who becomes obsessed with radio therapist Dr. Lindsay Roland (Shanna Reed) and goes to extreme lengths to get close to her – including murdering all the babysitters and fellow job applicants who get in her way. A woman DJ is also stalked in Filipino movie Radyo (2001), but this time it’s because she made fun of an on-air request made by an unhinged caller who wanted to dedicate a song to the co-worker he had a crush on. (If you’re a DJ, I hope you have taken note of all these cautionary tales…)
Part 4: DJ Biopics
The life of a DJ, in all honesty, is not guaranteed to be all that cinematic: there is not something particularly visual or compelling about watching someone sitting down with a pair of headphones on, playing records and talking intermittently. As a result, only those real-life DJs who have lived exceptional lives have had the biopic treatment, such as the father of all DJs, Alan Freed. The man often credited with coining the term “rock ‘n’ roll” and who championed modern pop music was the subject of American Hot Wax (1978). Like FM, which came out in the same year, Floyd Mutrux’s movie was a celebration both radio and the music it played, and had cameos by artists such as by Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Frankie Ford, Screamin' Jay Hawkins and the Brooklyn Dreams.
In 1987, the DJ biopic returned with Good Morning, Vietnam, Barry Levinson’s hit movie featuring an Oscar-nominated performance from Robin Williams. The film recounted the experiences of motormouth Adrian Cronauer while working as an Armed Forces Radio Service DJ based in Saigon during the Vietnam War, and was a big hit despite the fact that Cronauer had spent almost a decade unsuccessfully pitching the idea to Hollywood, first as a TV show and then as a movie. The following year, Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio, an adaptation of Eric Bogosian’s play of the same name, also made a big impact, but with much darker subject matter. The movie was technically a fictitious account about Barry Champlain, a Jewish political talk show host broadcasting out of Houston, Texas, but was heavily based on the real life case of Alan Berg, a shock jock who was infamously murdered by Neo-Nazis he had angered with his liberal views and uncompromising on-air attitude.
The life of another shock jock went under the microscope in 1997 with the release of Private Parts, in which the raunchy, rabble-rousing Howard Stern was played very convincingly by the very same Howard Stern. (Stern joined the elite ranks of stars such as war hero Audie Murphy and baseball icon Jackie Robinson as non-actors who played themselves in their life stories.) Most recently, Focus Features brought to the screen the story of another rebellious spinner, African-American DJ Ralph “Petey” Greene, in Talk To Me (2007). Greene (here played by Don Cheadle) was an ex-con and ex-junkie whose dynamic personality made him a folk hero with audiences in Washington DC, and who used his popularity high profile to become a community activist. (Greene was also the subject of the 2008 documentary, Adjust Your Color: The Truth of Petey Greene.)
Part 5: Pirate Radio
Richard Curtis’ Pirate Radio may be the first film to look back at the good old days of clandestine FM broadcasting, but there have already been a couple of modern takes on the subject. In many ways, pirate radio is a perfect shorthand for youthful rebellion, as two movies from the early 1990s demonstrated. In Allan Moyle’s underrated teen movie Pump Up the Volume (1990), Christian Slater stars as meek, reclusive high school student Mark who secretly broadcasts from his bedroom as the punk-rock playing badass “Hard Harry,” a.k.a. “Happy Harry Hard-On”. His great music and cathartic monologues about the rotten corruption of society and the system make him a cult hero among his peers who religiously listen to him at night (unaware of who he really is), and ultimately inspire them to take action. The following year, British director Isaac Julien captured social unrest in London in 1977 through the story of two AfroCaribbean young men, Chris (Valentine Nonyela) and Caz (Mo Sesay), who co-host the “Soul Patrol” radio show. In Julien’s film, the pirate broadcast represents the voice of the young and disenfranchised – punks, Rastas, Teddy Boys, etc. – and is in stark contrast with the legitimate and very staid radio programmes put out by the BBC, the old guard, the establishment.
In both these movies, pirate radio is a vital form of expression that defines its central characters, but it’s not just an activity for boys. In Canadian director Clement Virgo’s urban triptych Rude (1995), the eponymous lead is a young Jamaican-Canadian teenage girl (Sharon Lewis) who talks about everything from sex to the end of the world as she broadcasts to her fellow residents in an impoverished Toronto housing project. And there’s a female pirate DJ in the Hungarian road movie Kalózok (1999), about a trio of teens who hit the road in a camper van to broadcast the music of their favorite band, Jazz+Az. In 2000, the crazy genre parody Radio Free Steve offered a glimpse of what life as a pirate DJ in a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-esque future might be – which apparently involves driving around the desert and swearing a lot.
Part 6: Life Away from the Station
As stated before, the majority of the time we see DJs on screen they are in the studio, with their headphones on, spinning tunes, and it’s relatively rare that they are glimpsed away from the radio station. The first major film to show audiences this was The King of Marvin Gardens (1972), in which Jack Nicholson reteamed with his Five Easy Pieces director Bob Rafelson. Playing against type, Nicholson was a shy all-night radio talk show host working out of Philadelphia who goes to Atlantic City to see his brother (Bruce Dern), a small-time hustler who wants the siblings to buy an island in Hawaii.
Familial matters are also what takes Robert (David Beames), the central character in Brit director Chris Petit’s road movie Radio On (1979), away from work. The film, produced by Wim Wenders, is the tale of Robert’s (literal and figurative) journey of discovery as he tries to discover the circumstances that lead to his brother’s suicide. Beames’ character is far from a glamour figure or a celebrity – he’s the in-house disk jockey at the United Biscuits Network, broadcasting to all the company’s factories in the UK. British DJs and food apparently go well together, as in 1984 they were once again brought together in Bill Forsyth’s Comfort and Joy––the director’s follow-up to two big hits, Gregory’s Girl and Local Hero––which featured Bill Paterson as a Glasgow DJ who accidentally becomes involved in the (real life [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Glasgow_Ice_Cream_Wars]) Glasgow Ice Cream Wars, ending up as a mediator between the two sides.
In the 90s, the message put out there by the movies was that DJs should make sure that their successful careers should not negatively impact on their private lives. Exemplifying this were both Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King (1991), in which washed up shock jock Jeff Bridges (with the help of homeless Robin Williams) tries to rebuild his life after he becomes a drunk and a depressive, and On the Air (1995), in which Mexican psychedelic DJ Alberto (Daniel Giménez Cacho) ruefully recalls the good old days of the 60s and 70s and his lost love, Laura (Dolores Heredia).
Andreas Dresen, the director of recent release Cloud 9, documented more personal woes in his 2002 movie Grill Point (Halbe Treppe), in which DJ Chris (Thorsten Merten) causes major marital strife when he begins an affair with Ellen (Steffi Kühnert), the wife of his best friend. And the most recent film to show life beyond the mic was Patrick Stettner’s The Night Listener (not to be confused with the earlier The Night Caller), an adaptation of Armistead Maupin’s semi-autobiographical novel of the same name. The movie details the growing bond between Gabriel Noone (Robin Williams), an NYC radio host, and Peter Logand, a teenage AIDS sufferer whose memoir Noone has read, but who may not be exactly what he seems.