Movie: FM (1978)

Atari had a hot tub in its headquarters back in the 1970’s.  It was openly available to employees and they were encouraged to use it.  Every time this topic surfaces in books or documentaries about the company, shenanigans are alluded to but are mercifully never detailed.  For whatever reason, I was reminded of this for most of the time I was watching 1978’s FM, a character-driven feature about the disc jockeys at fictitious L.A. radio station QSKY.

Not that the salacious behavior on display reaches the levels of what I suspect happened in Atari’s jacuzzi.  This is a rated PG, after all.  But much happens here which wouldn’t today, unless somebody wanted a lawsuit.  Needless to say, the behavior the men display in this movie wasn’t acceptable back then, either—but it wouldn’t be an accurate portrait of that time if they acted otherwise.

A couple of women turn in solid performances, though they get nowhere near as much screen time as the boys.  Typical of this time, the roles they are given aren’t very substantial, and are largely various stereotypes.  Eileen Brennan plays “Mother”, an aging hippy who lives up to her name by being the nurturing figure of the office.  She also appears to be an object of sexual fantasy to listeners, and even some of the guys working at the station, which would be of interest to Freud.  Roberta Wallach gets to do nothing more than be Jay Fenichel’s colleague in the technical department, while also serving in the girlfriend department.  Mary Torrey is the most put-upon of the female cast, as DJ Martin Mull’s squeeze and the recipient of much ogling and lewd commentary from others.

Mull’s character is reprehensible, though I suspect he is not meant to be positioned as somebody we should be cheering for.  Alas, I think we’re still supposed to be amused by such antics as him crudely fingering a donut or having sex with a groupie while on-air.  The latter is what prompts Torrey, a staffer at the station, to quit.  Not long after this, we’re subjected to a long scene where Mull has a breakdown, also on a hot mic.  That scene is insufferable, both for its duration and the character’s self-pity.  Then the scene ends with him swarmed by young women who have flocked to the station to comfort him, so his character hasn’t even learned anything from his experience.

We’ll see him disproportionately more than his fellow DJs, which is a shame.  In addition to Brennan, we get Cleavon Little, Cassie Yates and Alex Karras.  I found it interesting Little was a DJ again after having played such a memorable one in Vanishing Point.  Here, he says, “QSKY, the last radio station”, which I found eerily reminiscent to his description of Kowalski in that other film as “the last American hero”.

Judging from their playlist, it is obvious why QSKY is the number one in the L.A. market.  They definitely didn’t get there by playing challenging music.  Instead, they play some of the most popular artists of the era, including James Taylor, Steve Miller, Bob Seger, REO Speedwagon, Fleetwood Mac, Joe Walsh, Tom Petty, Boz Skaggs, Queen, Boston, Dan Fogelberg, Billy Joel and Doobie Brothers.  I may hate The Eagles, but “Life In The Fast Lane” is the perfect soundtrack to our hero’s mad dash commute to begin his shift on the air on time.  Most notably, Steely Dan composed the title song specifically for this film, which no other feature can claim.  Ironically, licensing that music for home release was a nightmare, which is why it skipped DVD, only now seeing a release on blu-ray. 

The use of popular artists of the time extends beyond the soundtrack.  Tom Petty and REO Speedwagon have cameos where they aren’t in performance.  Jimmy Buffet performs a song at a benefit for Save The Whales.  I’m not a fan of his, but it is interesting to see him really give it his all back when he actually had to try.  One major set piece in the film is Linda Ronstadt in concert.  She is in top form in the three numbers performed here, but the movie essentially stops during this sequence.

The main plot driver is the parent company wanting to take more direct control of QSKY, beginning with the advertising.  Michael Brandon, as the station director, has serious concerns about this.  When the sales guy from the corporate headquarters envisions wall-to-wall commercials, Brandon responds with, “Yeah, just too bad we can’t get rid of the news and music, right?”

Where Brandon refuses to budge is when a mandate comes down to play commercials for the army.  There’s a pretty funny scene where a pot-smoking army rep seriously feels the groove of the spots they play for Brandon’s consideration.  One has to take into consideration American troops had pulled out of Vietnam only three years earlier, so anti-military sentiment was especially strong in mainstream society at the time.  I got the impression Brandon was concerned about these promotional spots effectively convincing young listeners to enlist, but I can’t imagine anybody being swayed by these ads.

Anywho, Brandon eventually quits as result of the pressure put upon him.  The DJs and staff then effectively stage a sit-in, barricading the doors and taking the airwaves hostage.  Soon, people are filling the street in front of the studio building.  It is weird how obviously this is staged on a set, but I felt that suited the ridiculous idea the public coming out in droves in solidarity of such a mediocre radio station sticking it to The Man.  Normal Lloyd, a film legend who had appeared in works by Welles and Hitchcock, improbably appears in the scene (and equally improbably in a cowboy hat) as the company’s owner, gives his blessing to the DJs. Roll credits over freeze frame of the leads in group hug.

Curiously, the photography is better than a movie like this would require, especially since it doesn’t call attention to itself. In the extras on the Arrow blu-ray, we learn the radio station, where the vast majority of the runtime is set, was a set built so that the many windows in it could be turned in any direction and angle. This enabled some complex combinations of reflections, so we get some interesting shots combining the action in front of the camera and what is behind it in another room.

The impression I’m giving of FM likely makes it sound worse than it is, but I am frustrated by how much better it could have been.  Done right, it might have been along with the lines of M*A*S*H, celebrating and gently skewering the L.A. radio scene of the late 70’s.  Instead, we get a mish-mash of unchecked leering, unearned pathos and the playlist of most every classic rock station.  I find it interesting WKRP in Cincinnati just happened to premiere in the fall of that same year, as that show was basically this movie reimagined as a sitcom. And, alas, FM can’t claim to be significantly better than it.

Dir: John A. Alonzo

Starring Michael Brandon, Eileen Brennan, Martin Mull, Cleavon Little, Cassie Yates

Watched on Arrow Video blu-ray