Sunday, July 3, 2016

DVD Review: FM (1978)

FM, the movie
The late 1970s were a time of idealism, a time of hope that reflected the values and dreams of the ‘60s counterculture. The evil President Nixon was gone, Viet Nam was over, Darth Reagan had yet to be elected, and if inflation was running wild, well, there was still meaningful work to be done to improve society. A thread of this idealism could be seen in the music industry where, on one hand, young punks in England and New York sought to overthrow the conventions of the music biz with attitude and conviction.

On the other hand, there were still people who thought that, the corporate side of the industry aside, it was the music itself that mattered and that radio was the vehicle for connecting people and the music that would change their lives. There have been numerous songs written about this concept through the years, but only a few movies have told the story. The film FM reflected that sense of idealism like no other movie before or since.

A moderate box office hit at the time, FM was released in 1978 and featured an ensemble cast that included talents like Martin Mull, Cleavon Little, and Eileen Brennan. It’s the story of a funky little L.A. rock radio station – QSKY-FM – and the staff’s battle with the station’s corporate ownership. Everything is copacetic at QSKY, where program director/morning jock Jeff Dugan (Michael Brandon) serves as the ringmaster over a quirky group of deejays.

The station makes money and pulls an audience, but not enough to satisfy the suits in Chicago, who send a new sales manager to shake things up and pump up the profits. When Dugan refuses to program a series of ads for the military, he’s forced to resign, prompting the staff to launch an on-air strike. After a near riot out on the street by the station’s loyal audience members, the conflict is resolved and the maverick QSKY staff is allowed to continue broadcasting the tunes as they see fit.

FM, the album
Not so much a cohesive story as a series of vignettes that lead to an eventual conclusion, FM is about the music and the people who bring it to us. The cast offers up a rogue’s gallery of radio biz stereotypes – the laid-back program director, the sensitive ladies man (Mull), the earth mother (Brennan), and the funky soul brother (Little) – as well as some nice reality-twisting touches such as the stoned Army officer. The film’s soundtrack – one of the first mega-successful soundtrack albums that would launch a trend in the decade to come – sounds like a veritable “who’s who” of 1970’s-era rock, including the title cut written and performed exclusively for the film by Steely Dan. Live concert performances by Jimmy Buffett and Linda Ronstadt are worked into the film, as are cameo appearances by R.E.O. Speedwagon and a then relatively-unknown Tom Petty, and the soundtrack album also includes cuts from Bob Seger, Joe Walsh, Steve Miller, and the Eagles, among others.

What’s most interesting about the idealism shown by FM is the reality that would come afterwards. The writer, Ezra Sacks and director John Alonzo obviously believe that by standing up for what is right, we can make a difference. I wonder how the fictional QSKY staff would react if they knew that, little more than twenty years after their courageous strike, the radio biz as they knew it would be gone.

Dominated by corporate interests and media conglomerates, the radio industry today is just one part of a philosophy of synergy where large corporations mix radio and television stations with newspapers and publishing in their profit portfolios. More than a bit dated and somewhat naïve by today’s standards, FM evokes a simpler time when, perhaps, the music really did matter… (L.A. Entertainment, released July 22, 2016)

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