Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (July 18, 2019)
Would WKRP In Cincinnati exist without the cinematic precursor of FM? Yeah – the former debuted only six months after the latter hit movie screens, and apparently the TV show’s pilot already sat in the can before FM materialized.
Nonetheless, like American Graffiti and Happy Days, FM and WKRP remain joined at the hip due to their many similarities. FM takes on the more dramatic view of the music and radio industries, however – to a degree, that is.
As the program director and manager of LA’s Q-SKY, Jeff Dugan (Michael Brandon) runs a loose ship, one that allows for a fair amount of freedom. This turns Q-SKY into a ratings behemoth, as its iconoclastic deejays rake in the listeners.
Never content to leave a good thing alone, Jeff’s corporate overlords attempt to influence programming and use airtime for a much higher percentage of commercials, including some that attempt to make military service look hip and cool. This creates a rebellion at the station.
Though rated “PG”, FM probably seemed a little too “mature” for a then-11-year-old like me, so I didn’t see the film during its theatrical run. In 1980, my dad and I went to a drive-in triple bill with FM, Buddy Holly Story and Let It Be.
I was there just to see the Beatles movie. It ran last, though, so we sat through the other two as well.
I maintain zero memories of FM from that screening. Sure, it was 39 years ago, but shouldn’t I remember something about the film?
Yeah, but now that I’ve seen FM again, I realize why it left my brain so long ago. While not a terrible film, FM seems limp and meandering.
Honestly, I suspect FM maintains a place in the cultural memory almost entirely due to Steely Dan’s hit title song. Without that close connection – and perhaps the WKRP association - the flick would likely be pretty much forgotten.
I can’t bemoan that potential lapse into obscurity, as so little of FM works. It dabbles in various plot points with commitment to none and fails to develop either storylines or characters in a satisfying manner.
FM mostly functions as a general view of life at a rock radio station, but the filmmakers can’t leave well enough alone. They decide they need to force the “stick it to the man” plot element in which the suits force extra commercials on the deejays, with the presence of military ads as the biggest offense of all.
To put it mildly, the US military wasn’t popular circa 1978, so close to the Vietnam War. Fairly or not, FM uses the military as one of the de facto villains, and this becomes an unnecessary choice.
Actually, the entire theme of the deejays vs. the suits seems borderline pointless. Again, a movie that simply gave us a “day in the life” look at the radio station would seem like enough, so the tacked-on anti-corporate narrative feels contrived.
That said, based on the evidence, I’m not sure a version of FM that just followed the inhabitants of the station without the conflicts would be much better. When FM concentrates on the antics at Q-SKY, it doesn’t prove much more compelling.
Maybe a single 104-minute movie just doesn’t offer the cinematic real estate necessary to take on so many characters. While Dugan acts as the core, we also spend a fair amount of time with deejays Mother (Eileen Brennan), Prince of Darkness (Cleavon Little), Doc (Alex Karras), Eric Swan (Martin Mull) and others.
Each one gets some screen time, but not enough to create fleshed-out roles. Throw in all the other Q-SKY staff, the corporate suits and others and you wind up with an overstuffed movie that lacks much room to breathe.
FM’s “PG” rating probably becomes its biggest drawback, though, as a story of a rock radio station circa 1978 can’t come across as realistic without an “R”. Sure, WKRP worked on broadcast TV, but it never aspired to offer anything other than a comedic take on the proceedings.
While it opts for laughs as well, FM clearly intends to bring us a more hard-hitting take on the topic, and that “PG” really restrains it. We get allusions to pot smoking and groupies, but most of the film feels awfully sanitized.
This really hamstrings FM. It’s hard to imagine a more debauched period than the LA rock scene of the late 1970s, so the near absence of those elements gives the film a problematic sense of unreality.
FM does boast a nice cast, even if they lack the opportunity to do much with their parts. It also provides an excellent soundtrack, one that acts as a strong representation of the period’s hits.
Color me astonished that Arrow cleared the video rights for all those songs. The breadth of famous songs on display seems breathtaking, and I imagine it must’ve been tough to get them all, but they’re here.
Beyond an overqualified cast and a terrific soundtrack, I find little to embrace with FM. An oddly neutered view of the music industry, it lacks the impact it needs.