Did you know that Steely Dan’s song “FM” was really the theme song to a movie? Odds are you and the DJ playing the song might not know this staple of FM radio was created for the cinema. Don’t blame the DJ because FM, the movie has become a bit obscure over the time. The film wasn’t a hit when it was released in April of 1978. This was the era before VHS hit so the movie didn’t really have a chance to gain a following on video. It played a bit on late movie slots on TV in the early ’80s and then it seemed to vanish. There were rumors that the film was the inspiration for WKRP in Cincinnati, but this wasn’t true since the show came on TV in the Fall of ’78. It was being developed as the movie was being made. But the movie and the series were based on the same person: KMET programming director Mikel Hunter Herrington. He was a leader in the proving FM could be big with Album Oriented Rock instead of just play 45 singles. FM shows how him and his DJs created an audience and the station owners turned those listeners into a demographic for advertisers.
Things get started fast at QSKY when the overnight DJ the Prince of Darkness (Blazing Saddles‘ Cleavon Little) wraps up his shift by playing The Eagles’ “Life In the Fast Lane” as Jeff Dugan (Captain America: The First Avenger‘s Michael Brandon) morning guy and program director races through Los Angeles to beat the record. He barely gets there in time to start up a Boz Scaggs track. This is a time when radio stations had human beings in the studios that had to cue up the vinyl. So we quickly meet the main DJs at the station. After Dugan came Doc (Webster‘s Alex Karras) who seems a bit over his head dealing with a hipper crowd than his country AM past. The evening drive guy is Eric Swan (Serial & Fernwood 2 Night‘s Martin Mull) who tries to be a bit romantic and mystical during his breaks. Mother (The Last Picture Show‘s Eileen Brennan) brings the audience up to midnight when the Prince of Darkness returns. It’s like a real FM radio station in the late ’70s. The station had a bit of a pirate feeling even though it was owned by a corporation with other stations in their network. The movie follows the odd things that would happen at a radio station in Los Angeles. They host a benefit concert with Jimmy Buffett, the Leader of the Parrotheads. Later in a bit of stealth fun, Dugan swipes a live broadcast of Linda Ronstadt. This mini-concert gives you a sense of why she was a rock Goddess at the end of the ’70s with her takes on “Tumblin’ Dice,” “Love Me Tender” and “Poor Poor Pitiful Me.” There’s a fine moment when Swan entertains a fan in the studio and leaves his microphone on. The woman in the studio is played by Brenda Venus who was writer Henry Miller’s last muse. The high point of the film is when the ratings books arrive and QSKY is at the top. But being at the top comes at a major price.
Doc’s ratings are horrible and Dugan has to deliver the bad news. Mother wants out of the disc jockey life. She’s worn out from guys who call the request line that either are perverts or blathering sadness cases. The biggest nightmare arrives in the studio is Regis Lamar (Tom Tarpey), a sales guy who is ready to land big accounts for the station. Dugan hates his guts. He fears that Regis is going to ruin everything they’ve built by turning them into a station that plays a dozen commercials between songs. Things come to a head when he lands an advertiser that Dugan knows will clash with the audience he’s built up over the last few years. He doesn’t want to sell out his listeners.
If you worked in college radio, many of the little incidents are relatable. Waiting for the next disc jockey to show up for their shift was always an adventure. Having to remember run all the ads took the fun out of a shift. The cart machine eating the tape while on the air was a universal experience. The big issue with FM is after so much workplace reality, the third act is a Rock and Roll Radio fantasy. The DJs and the listeners unite to take back the airwaves in a slapstick way. But at least it wants us to feel good about fighting back against the corporate overlords. Sadly this is rarely true. A few years after this movie came out, the album oriented rock station in Raleigh went country. There was no giant rebellion on the streets. Granted it helped that a new station quickly took it’s place. But most listeners just turned the dial and listened to whatever sounded ok to them or played their own records at home.
FM is a movie worth rediscovering. It takes you back to the time when you actually did have favorite DJs. Nowadays most radio stations have a computer that shuffle the songs and the ad breaks. And commercials matter more than the music. All the music does is create the demographic that the advertisers pay to reach. I once read an article about how at its peak the radio network Clear Channel held a big meeting that spent 15 minutes giving out awards to innovative radio programmers and three hours passing hardware to salespeople. FM wants us to remember there was a time when the music was supposed to matter. FM wants to us to remember that it’s more than a Steely Dan single.
The video is 2.35:1. The Blu-ray transfer finally allows the images to shine. Director John A. Alonzo was an Oscar nominated cinematographer (Chinatown) and he and director of photography David Myers give fine views of the radio station. The audio is DTS-HD MA 5.1 to give you the music and the action wrapping around your speakers. There’s also the original LPCM stereo of the original theatrical mix. The movie is subtitled.
Static at All (25:05) a newly filmed interview with Michael Brandon, the star of FM. He explains how the first scene in the film could have been the end of his life. This was a glorious time for Brandon as he was married to Lindsey Wagner (The Bionic Woman). He had written the script for Starman. Had the biggest agents in Hollywood. He had his first lead role in FM. And then it all went weird because Lindsay wanted Starman to be the two part finale for Bionic Woman and spun off into a series. He didn’t have time to do both the movie and the TV show. Lindsay didn’t seem to like the choice. This is a great interview since he has quite a few tales from the production.
Radio Chaos (23:24), a newly filmed interview with Ezra Sacks, the writer of FM. He speaks of how after selling a script that wasn’t made into a film, he was searching for a new topic. He got his inspiration from working at KMET as their film critic. The film turns into a bit of an appreciation for the kindess of Mikel Hunter Herrington.
The Spirit of Radio (23:00) has film and music critic Glenn Kenny discuss the soundtrack of the film and a bit about the early days of radio. He points out that even though it’s 1979, the music played at the radio station are pretty much ignores punk and new wave. Of course part of this is because band manager Irving Azoff put together a soundtrack with a lot of his acts that would become staples of Classic Rock radio in the later ’80s.
Isolated Music and Effects Track lets you watch the film as mainly a video for the soundtrack album. How did Steely Dan not get Oscar nominated for their theme song? There’s no need to protest that it didn’t win that year since the Oscar went to Donna Summer for “Last Dance” from Thank God It’s Friday. That’s a classic too.
Extensive Gallery of original stills (10:00), promotional images (2:40) and soundtrack sleeves (7:30). The soundtrack sales were extensive although most people must have thought it was just an FM radio station on double album.
Trailer (2:53) teases with the idea of seeing what happens on the other end of your radio speakers.
Arrow Video presents FM. Directed by Riccardo Freda. Screenplay by: Riccardo Freda & Paul Hengge. Starring: Michael Brandon, Eileen Brennan, Alex Karras, Cleavon Little, Martin Mull & Cassie Yates. Rated: PG. Running Time: 104 minutes. Released: July 2, 2019.
Tags: Arrow Video, FM, Starman, WKRP in Cincinnati