FM (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (29th July 2019).
The Film

FM (John A Alonzo, 1978)

Synopsis:
Jeff Dugan (Michael Brandon) is the much-loved manager of Los Angeles commercial free radio station QSKY-FM, which is owned at a distance by the Billings Corporation. QSKY is the second most popular radio station in the Los Angeles area; its chief competitor is KLAX-FM, which is operated by Michael J Carlyle (Terry Jastrow). The disc jockeys of QSKY include sultry evening DJ Mother (Eileen Brennan), a late-night DJ nicknamed ‘The Prince of Darkness’ (Cleavon Little), popular Laura Coe (Cassie Yates) and the ever-so-slightly unhinged Eric Swan (Martin Mull). Also working at the station is technician Bobby (Jay Fenichel), who presses homegrown recordings into the hand of Dugan in the hopes of one day becoming a DJ.

Al Driscoll (Joe Smith), the vice president of Billings Corp, sends sales executive Regis Lamar (Tom Tarpey) to the QSKY station with the intention of transforming the station’s popularity with its audience into cash dollars through advertising. Dugan is resistant to this idea, proud of QSKY’s reputation as a commercial free station. What he begins to understand, upon the arrival of Lamar, is that some of the adverts with which Billings Corp intends to saturate QSKY are recruitment ads for the American military. As a draft dodger during the Vietnam War, Dugan is firm in his assertions than no ads for the US military will run on QSKY.

Meanwhile, Dugan hopes to increase the popularity of QSKY by ‘stealing’ KLAX-FM’s sponsorship of an upcoming concert by Linda Ronstadt. Dugan plots to broadcast the Ronstadt concert live, thus increasing the station’s viewing figures and making it the top station in the region. In order to do this, Dugan must devise a cunning plan to prevent Michael J Carlyle from reaching the Ronstadt concert before it begins.

Things come to a head when Dugan is confronted by Driscoll over his resistance to the pressure placed on him by Lamar to run the ads for the US military. Dugan resigns; disheartened, the other DJs, who had previously been planning to ‘jump ship’, pull together and barricade themselves in the QSKY offices in the hopes of persuading the Billings Corporation to change their tack in relation to the military ads and to reinstate their beloved station manager.

Critique: It’s not a stretch to say that John A Alonzo’s 1978 picture FM seems largely to be built around the guest appearances by the likes of Jimmy Buffett, REO Speedwagon and Tom Petty. The film’s principle reason for being seems almost to have been the soundtrack album – including a title theme written and performed for the movie by Steely Dan (‘FM (No Static At All)’). At the centre of the narrative is footage of an electrifying Linda Ronstadt singing at her concert at The Summit in 1977. Much of the story revolves around Dugan and his crew attempting to ‘steal’ the Ronstadt concert from rival station KLAX and broadcast it live, resulting in QSKY becoming the number one station in Los Angeles. Ronstadt is shown singing three songs (the Stones’ ‘Tumbling Dice’, Warren Zevon’s ‘Poor Poor Pitiful Me’ and Elvis Presley’s ‘Love Me Tender’) before dedicating the concert to the fictional Jeff Dugan and QSKY Radio. This was Ronstadt’s first appearance in a film, and frustratingly the tracks she sings are fragmented by some hefty cross-cutting. Perhaps because of this, Ronstadt reputedly had second thoughts about her appearance in the picture, denying the filmmakers the opportunity to use her image to promote the finished movie (see Lewry, 2010: np).

FM was the only theatrical feature of director John A Alonzo; known primarily as a director of photography, in 1972 Alonzo became the ‘first cinematographer of Mexican-American and Latino heritage invited to join the ASC [American Society of Cinematographers]’ (ASC, 2019: np). In the couple of years that followed the production of FM, Alonzo would direct a small handful of TV movies before returning to work as a cinematographer: some of Alonzo’s more notable credits in that area include Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude (1971), Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974) and Brian De Palma’s Scarface (1983).

Shot for $55 million, FM was written by Ezra Sacks and was reputedly largely based on the period in Sacks’ life in which he worked as a film and drama critic at the Los Angeles radio station KMET-FM (Herbeck, 1978: 4). An article in Billboard from 1978 suggested that Alonzo was ‘using music in the film as a “motivating character,” which he [Alonzo] believes is another first’ (ibid.). The notion that this was the first time ‘found’ music had been used in such a way is highly debatable, however: popular music could have been considered a ‘motivating character’ in any number of Hollywood films made since the first Hollywood feature to use ‘found’ music extensively, Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider in 1969. Like Hopper’s picture, FM uses found music throughout its duration: absent a traditional film score, every piece of music heard in FM is a pop tune of the mid/late-1970s, some tracks (such as the aforementioned piece by Steely Dan) being written and recorded for the film. The tracks were selected by the film’s executive producer, Irving Azoff, who was also the president of Front Line Management: as a consequence, in what is perhaps an inspired act of product placement, plenty of LPs by acts represented by Front Line Management can be seen littered throughout the offices of QSKY – including the likes of The Eagles, Jimmy Buffett and REO Speedwagon. (In the 1980s, Azoff would go on to produce or co-produce a handful of films that also featured on their soundtracks music by artists his company represented – including James Bridges’ Urban Cowboy in 1980 and Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High in 1982.) In some scenes of FM, pop music is used to underscore a scene, and in others it is used essentially as a substitute for dialogue: Alonzo sometimes has his characters reach epiphanic moments within the soundproof booth of the recording studio, using the soundproof glass to separate his camera from the actors, allowing the music on the soundtrack to ‘do the talking’ for them. The film features over 30 cuts of music throughout its running time, and, pleasingly for Azoff, the double-LP soundtrack went platinum – though FM itself was something of a flop for Universal, making only $3 million on its initial release.

Careful attention was paid to the design of the QSKY offices: Sacks stated that the production emphasised ‘the most modern [radio] equipment’ in the context of ‘a very old physical plant’, this suggesting ‘that this little group of DJs and their program director had literally taken this mythical station up in the ratings from the toilet through their own merits’ (Sacks, quoted in Herbeck, op cit.: np). Interviewed whilst FM was in production, Alonzo argued that ‘Nobody’s ever seen the inside of a radio station and how it really works [in movies]’, adding that ‘This film should have the same effect on audiences regarding radio that [Sidney Lumet’s] “Network” did for television, except without the violence’ (Alonzo, quoted in Herbeck, 1978: np). These were lofty ambitions, and whilst it’s doubtful that anyone would compare the fairly by-the-numbers FM with the incendiary Network today, and certainly there had been films set in radio stations previously, Alonzo’s film does indeed offer viewers an insight into the workings of a radio station. Glimpses of radio life had been seen in films prior to FM, of course: such pictures range from Ivar Campbell’s Radio Pirates (1935) to Don Siegel’s Play Misty for Me (1971). Radio stations would become a more popular setting that in films and television of the 1980s and 1990s, including Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio (1988, based the life and murder by white supremacists of real ‘shock jock’ Alan Berg), Allan Moyle’s Pump up the Volume (1990) and the television sitcom Frasier (1993-2004). Here, in FM, the radio station setting is perhaps comparable to the newsroom settings of films like Lewis Milestone’s The Front Page (1931) – a place where relationships are forged and broken, and battles are waged by ‘pure’ artists against ‘corrupt’ corporate interests. Closer to FM, the year 1978 also saw the release of the film American Hot Wax (directed by Floyd Mutrux), about the life of 1950s disc jockey Alan Freed, and the television programme WKRP in Cincinnati (1978-1982). Some have suggested that WKRP in Cincinnati was inspired by FM, though the creators of that show have stated that the series was already in preproduction before FM was released.

Speaking of the dualism established between ‘pure’ artists and ‘corrupt’ corporate interests, the central dramatic tension in FM – between Dugan’s management of the station and the Billings Corporation’s insistence that QSKY play ads for the military – was sourced from a situation Sacks witnessed first-hand during his tenure at KMET-FM. ‘[T]he station was brought a package of Armed Forces commercials’, Sacks reflected, ‘But the station refused to air them because of artistic reasons. The tone of the commercials would not fit with the demographics of the station’s audience’ (Sacks, quoted in Herbeck, op cit: np). At the time, Sacks had already begun writing the script that would evolve into FM and had inserted into this another conflict between the station’s management and its corporate owners over ‘objectionable “screaming” stereo chain spots’ (ibid.). However, observing the situation at KMET-FM with the conflict between the station management and the US military ads they were required to play, Sacks realised that the ‘incident gave me a much better “villain”’, and this steered the script for FM in a slightly different direction (Sacks, quoted in ibid.). (In reality, the management at KMET-FM backed down and eventually agreed to run the ads for the military.) The conflict between ‘art’ and ‘commerce’ that is sketched in FM is ironic inasmuch as it appears in a Hollywood movie – and the film in which it appears was intended to make money but was ultimately a commercial failure. This is a notable example of the type of ideological recuperation often practised by Hollywood films, including the likes of more recent pictures such as David Fincher’s Fight Club (1999) – expressing anti-corporate/anti-commercialism sentiment within the product of a corporate/commercial system.

Video

Filling slightly over 30Gb on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc, Arrow’s presentation of FM is in 1080p using the AVC codec. The film was shot anamorphically, on 35mm stock. This presentation is in the film’s intended aspect ratio of 2.35:1.

Arrow’s presentation is billed as ‘transferred from original film elements’. These elements are unspecified, but the texture of the material and the sharp drop off into the toe, with crushed blacks appearing from time to time, suggest a source removed from the negative by a generation or two. Nevertheless, for the most part contrast levels are pleasing, with some richly-defined midtones and highlights that never get too hot. The level of fine detail is pleasing throughout though there’s a very slight softness to the material that may be sourced from the lenses used during production. Colours are consistent and skintones are mostly quite natural though there’s a slight bias towards red. The encode to disc presents no problems, the presentation retaining the structure of 35mm film.

Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.



Audio

Audio options are: (i) a LPCM 2.0 stereo track; (ii) a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track; and (iii) an isolated music and effects track (in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo).

Purists will prefer the stereo track rather than the newer surround sound mix. The LPCM 2.0 track is punchy and up-front, whereas the 5.1 mix has some good sound separation – particularly in the concert scenes – but is more dispersed and feels ‘softer’ and less impactful because of it.

Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are provided. These are easy to read, accurate and error-free.

Extras

The disc includes:
- ‘No Static At All’ (25:05). Michael Brandon is interviewed about FM. Brandon offers some vivid recollections of the shooting of FM, beginning with a potentially fatal accident involving the sporty yellow car in which his character is seen racing to the QSKY station in the opening sequence. Brandon had recently married Lindsay Wagner and written a script called Starman for Universal, which was going to be produced as a television show with Brandon in the lead role, when he was approached for the role in FM; this, Brandon says, displeased his wife greatly. (The two would divorce in 1979.) Brandon decided that he ‘wanted to be in movies rather than in television’ so took the role in FM. He reflects on the set, which was built according to John A Alonzo’s specifications, and was intricately designed. Brandon also talks about meeting with Linda Ronstadt vis-à-vis filming her concert in Houston, Texas. Brandon is on excellent form here, offering some detailed recollections in a deeply engaging style of delivery.

- ‘Radio Chaos’ (23:24). Ezra Sacks, the film’s writer, discusses how the script for FM grew out of his employment with KMET-FM, where he was working as a film critic. Sacks talks about how he got the job as KMET’s film critic, and Sacks says this was ‘in many ways one of, if not the single best job I ever had in my life’. During his time at KMET, he met film editor Verna Fields, to whom Sacks pitched the idea for FM. This meeting led to Universal giving Sacks the greenlight to develop his script, at which point John A Alonzo was brought in to direct it. Sacks talks about some of the disagreements he had with Alonzo over certain elements of the picture – specifically over the qualities of the character of Jeff Dugan. This is a fascinating interview, Sacks’ first-hand experience of the world of radio articulating and clarifying some of the plot points in the film’s narrative.

- ‘The Spirit of Radio’ (23:00). Critic Glenn Kenny talks about the soundtrack for FM, situating this within a discussion of FM radio generally. Kenny suggests that in the world of FM, it’s as if ‘punk never happened’. Kenny praises the diversity of FM radio but when its commercial potential ‘became something too big to ignore, you got something called “album-oriented radio”’, though this isn’t the conflict within FM as there is never any disagreement within the film over what music the DJs should be playing – only over the idea that ads should take precedent over the music. Kenny reflects in detail on some of the tracks on the soundtrack album. He offers some particularly interesting reflections on the Linda Ronstadt concert scene and how this took place in an era before the presentation/stylisation of concerts became privileged over ‘just go[ing] out and play[ing]’.

- Trailer (2:53).

- Image Galleries: Production Stills (61 images); Posters, Lobby Cards & Press Materials (17 images); Soundtrack Editions (46 images)
.

Overall

Essentially a soap opera with a rock music soundtrack, FM’s ‘layered’ approach to found music still feels very modern. In retrospect, there are some stark similarities between this film and the much later Allan Moyle picture Empire Records (1995) – which is similarly soap opera-esque, features a similar use of found music and where a similar conflict is fought between the ‘pure’ owners of the independent Empire Records shop and the large corporate chain which wants to buy the business and rebrand it. Like FM, Empire Records would prove to be a notable financial failure for the producers. Perhaps part of the ‘problem’ of FM is that its denouncement of corporate interests sometimes feels very didactic (‘If we let ‘em get away with one [ad], they’ll start shoving ‘em at us’, Dugan argues at one point, ‘They’ll start over-selling, over-commercialising till they drive our goddamn station into the ground. What do they care about our audience? What do they care about music? All they care about is money’). It also feels rather mealy-mouthed, in a film that is the product of perhaps the biggest corporate/commercial system in the world of entertainment, and which is filled with what feels like product placement for acts managed by Irving Azoff. That said, the eclectic cast of DJs form a likable core to the picture, and some of the music is exceptional – especially the footage of the Ronstadt concert (an amusing anecdote about which Brandon presents in the special features on this disc). There are also some memorably amusing sequences: Eric’s show being interrupted by a buxom groupie named Dolores Deluxe, who performs a sex act on Eric which is accidentally broadcast on the airwaves, followed by Eric’s desperate attempt to cover this up by claiming he’s broadcasting a new SFX LP ‘mixed with some folk music from France’; and the scene in which Dugan meets with a Lieutenant from the army who offers Dugan some marijuana which ‘is genuine, three-star personal stock of the General himself, flown straight from South-East Asia to the Pentagon [….] You know, a lot of the big guys at the brass think that this is the reason why we invaded the damn county in the first place’.

Arrow’s Blu-ray release of FM contains a pleasingly filmlike, though not exceptional, presentation. It is accompanied by some excellent contextual material. The interviews with Brandon and Sacks are particularly engaging and informative: Brandon is a fine raconteur, and whilst Sacks is not an oral storyteller of the same calibre as Brandon his first-hand insight into the world of radio provides a fascinating sense of context for the main feature.

References:
ASC, 2019: ‘ASC Inclusivity Milestones’. [Online.] https://theasc.com/asc-vision/milestones.html

Herbeck, Ray, Jr, 1978: ‘“FM” Movie Modeled on KMET in L.A.’ Billboard (4 March, 1978): 4, 71

Lewry, Peter, 2010: Linda Ronstadt: A Life in Music. Andrews UK.

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