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Retro Review: FM (1978) and BETWEEN THE LINES (1977)

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FM
(US - 1978)

Directed by John A. Alonzo. Written by Ezra Sacks. Cast: Michael Brandon, Eileen Brennan, Alex Karras, Cleavon Little, Martin Mull, Cassie Yates, Norman Lloyd, Linda Ronstadt, Jimmy Buffett, Jay Fenichel, James Keach, Joe Smith, Tom Tarpey, Tom Petty, Janet Brandt, Mary Torrey, Terry Jastrow, Cissy Wellman, Robert Patten, Brenda Venus, REO Speedwagon. (PG, 104 mins)

Long erroneously credited with being the inspiration for WKRP IN CINCINNATI, which was in development at CBS at the same time, FM, released by Universal in the spring of 1978, is a killer soundtrack in search of a movie. The soundtrack, a time-capsule snapshot of 1978 rock radio with the title track written for the film by Steely Dan, ended up being a huge seller and was far more popular than the movie, which did only middling business. It's easy to see why: for a comedy, it's rarely laugh-out-loud funny, and the dramatic elements are managed in a heavy-handed way that leads to a contrived feelgood ending that comes off as phony and unearned. The cast is likable, though it might've helped to have someone more magnetic than Michael Brandon in the central role. Best known for his debut in 1970's acclaimed LOVERS AND OTHER STRANGERS and, if you're a horror fan, Dario Argento's 1971 giallo FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET, Brandon had a rare big-screen lead with FM at a time when he was pretty firmly entrenched as a TV actor or an occasional support (fourth-billed in 1980's A CHANGE OF SEASONS, for instance, after Shirley MacLaine, Anthony Hopkins, and Bo Derek). Just out on Blu-ray from Arrow (because physical media is dead), FM stars Brandon as Jeff Dugan, the program director and morning drive-time deejay at L.A.'s second highest-rated FM station Q-SKY. He manages a motley crew of characters, including Mother (Eileen Brennan), the aging veteran who's getting burned out with the weirdos who call in; Doc (Alex Karras), whose low ratings and country & western playlist in the pivotal afternoon slot ultimately cost him his job; Dugan's on-again/off-again girlfriend Laura (Cassie Yates), promoted from fill-in and weekends to replace Doc; the Prince of Darkness (Cleavon Little), who has the midnight-6am slot; and the mercurial Eric Swan (FERNWOOD 2 NIGHT star Martin Mull in his movie debut), the evening deejay who's hired an agent and is constantly looking to parlay his on-air popularity into something more, like hosting a game show, but is time and again his own worst enemy.







QSKY's corporate owners send in sales stooge Regis Lamar (Tom Tarpey) to drum up advertising, even calling on a friend in the Army to set up a deal where QSKY will play corny military recruitment jingles throughout the day. Of course, Dugan is vehemently against the idea, arguing that the station is already profitable and it has to be about more than dollars ("Wall-to-wall commercials!" Lamar beams, with Dugan sneering "Yeah, too bad we can't get rid of the music completely!"). Eventually, Dugan is canned after refusing to go along with corporate's directive, prompting Mother, Swan, and the rest of the staff to announce an on-air strike, barricading themselves in the building as fans riot outside to the tune of Queen's "We Will Rock You." Dugan is introduced speeding to work and avoiding the cops to the Eagles'"Life in the Fast Lane," and Swan has an on-air meltdown to Player's "Baby Come Back." Hardly a minute goes by without some now-classic rock staple putting in an appearance (here, check out the incredible tracklist; Anchor Bay released this on DVD many years ago and it's hard to believe they and now Arrow were able to clear all the music rights), and there's certainly an argument to made that FM's soundtrack is better than any K-Tel compilation of the day or as effective as any late '70s rock playlist you would create today (Fleetwood Mac's "Don't Stop" is also in the movie, but isn't on the soundtrack album). You also get live concert footage of Jimmy Buffett and Linda Ronstadt, and, in a canny display of corporate synergy, MCA Records' rising star Tom Petty drops by the QSKY studio to plug his new single "Breakdown" and be interviewed on air by Dugan and Laura.





Much of the musical talent was corralled by executive producer/record exec/talent manager Irving Azoff, who ultimately had his name taken off the credits after a disagreement with Universal. The music is phenomenal and scenes like Dugan and Mother hosting an REO Speedwagon meet-and-greet at an L.A. Tower Records are priceless, but storywise, there just isn't much here. The lone feature directing effort by renowned cinematographer John A. Alonzo (CHINATOWN), FM is clearly the work of a D.P., with effective use of windows, glass, and reflections throughout, but is also saddled with a TV look at times, especially the climactic riot, which Alonzo is forced to stage in what looks like a cramped corner on a laughably unconvincing Universal backlot. The scant laughs usually come courtesy of Mull, whether he's getting blown by a fan in the deejay booth and unaware that he's on the air, or having one of his many diva moments where he goes silent with dead air, then comes to his senses by telling listeners that he just played the new single by Marcel Marceau. Both Brandon's Jeff Dugan and Gary Sandy's Andy Travis on WKRP IN CINCINNATI were based on famed KMET program director "Captain Mikey." But the difference between FM and WKRP is that FM errs in taking itself far too seriously, even if it gives Brennan some fine dramatic moments, like when she decides to quit, telling Dugan "I need more than five hours a night ego-tripping in this toy store." FM suffers from its inability to decide if it wants to be an insightful drama about the inner workings of a radio station or a wacky comedy about a zany crew of miscreants who play by their own rules. It ends up falling short at both ends, and all that's left is the music, which, in this instance, is enough to justify its cult status.



FM opening in Toledo, OH on 5/5/1978





BETWEEN THE LINES
(US - 1977)

Directed by Joan Micklin Silver. Written by Fred Barron. Cast: John Heard, Lindsay Crouse, Jeff Goldblum, Gwen Welles, Bruno Kirby, Stephen Collins, Jill Eikenberry, Lewis J. Stadlen, Michael J. Pollard, Jon Korkes, Lane Smith, Joe Morton, Richard Cox, Marilu Henner, Raymond J. Barry, Gary Springer, Susan Haskins, Charles Levin, Guy Boyd, Martina Deignan, Robert Costanzo, John H. Gartner, Douglas Kenney, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. (R, 101 mins)

Released a year before FM, BETWEEN THE LINES follows similar formula, has many funny moments with several irreverent smartasses among its character ensemble, but it's a more observational piece of a specific time and place, with counterculture disillusionment setting in and the realities of "adulting" (to use the parlance of our times) and a changing business structure taking hold. Like FM, BETWEEN THE LINES saw the corporate nature of the '80s coming before it did, but many of the characters in BETWEEN THE LINES weren't paying attention to Peter Fonda's despondent "We blew it," near the end of EASY RIDER. The alternative Boston newspaper The Back Bay Mainline is at a turning point. Once a beacon of the underground and the counterculture going back to the late '60s, it's now gone relatively mainstream, with publisher Stuart (Richard Cox) needing more ad revenue to keep the paper afloat and pay the staff. Editor Frank (Jon Korkes) doesn't want to sacrifice copy and keeps butting heads with dweeby, bow-tied advertising sales director Stanley (Lewis J. Stadlen), who insists they need to cut down copy and increase ads to stay profitable. Stanley's the kind of guy who's only too happy about the rumors swirling that Stuart is looking to sell the paper to Roy Walsh (Lane Smith), a powerful business mogul who's amassing a print media empire, a move that will instill a sense of across-the-board policies and likely push out the writing staff, anchored by mainstay Harry Lucas (John Heard), once a counterculture hero in Boston but now just jaded, cynical and barely showing up for work.






At one point, Frank tells Stanley "There's two kinds of writers here: they're either on their way up or on their way down." There's also Michael (Stephen Collins), who's shopping around for a book deal to leave the Mainline behind and go to NYC, though colleague and girlfriend Laura (Robert Altman vet Gwen Welles) wants to stay put; photographer Abbie (Lindsay Crouse), who has an on-again/off-again thing going with Harry and often proves better at his job than he is; ambitious David (Bruno Kirby), who still wears a tie to work; the eccentric "Hawker" (Michael J. Pollard, cast radically against type as "Michael J. Pollard"), a seemingly homeless man who sleeps in the office and sells copies of the paper on the street; Max (Jeff Goldblum), the wisecracking, popular music critic who keeps failing to convince Stuart and Frank that his loyal following warrants a raise from his current pay of $75 per week; and Lynn (Jill Eikenberry), the sweet receptionist who has to put up with all of them. They do what they do because the love the job or, in Harry's case, what the Mainline once was, even though it pays so little that most of them have second jobs, with Max scrounging for extra cash by selling promo copies of reviewed LPs to a used record store down the street.


Directed by Joan Micklin Silver, who found much acclaim with her 1975 debut HESTER STREET (which earned Carol Kane a Best Actress Oscar nomination) and would go on to direct 1988's CROSSING DELANCEY among several other films, BETWEEN THE LINES deftly captures the mood, the spirit, and the lingo of working at a small publication that's struggling to keep the lights on. That's not surprising, as screenwriter Fred Barron (who would go on to create the Lea Thompson sitcom CAROLINE IN THE CITY) spent time in the early '70s working at the Boston alternative weekly The Real Paper, the most obvious influence on the Mainline. Amidst its serious issues and its predictions of exactly how corporate America would take over the news business (also hammered home a year earlier in the scathing NETWORK), with Walsh ultimately buying the paper and saying he wants to keep things the way they are but reminding Frank on day one that "I run several newspapers...I can have a staff in here tomorrow," there's a lot of laughs. They come mostly from Goldblum, in one of the earliest presentations of his "Jeff Goldblum" persona," and future Character Actor Hall of Famer Raymond J. Barry, not a guy generally known for his comedy skills, steals the one scene he's in as a crazed "conceptual artist" with long hair and overalls, barging into the office, smashing Lynn's typewriter to the floor and declaring "I call that 'End of Communication.'" Critically acclaimed at the time, BETWEEN THE LINES, like HESTER STREET, was released independently through Midwest Films, a company founded by Micklin Silver and her husband Raphael Silver. It didn't get a lot of theatrical exposure, though it was rescued from obscurity with a recent Cohen Media restoration that had a limited run in NYC and L.A. before hitting Blu-ray (Collins, his career essentially over following 2014 revelations of past instances of sexual contact with minors going back to 1973, is noticeably left out of the credits on the Blu-ray packaging). It's a time capsule from an bygone era that's never coming back, and with a great ensemble of young actors about to go places (Marilu Henner has a small role as a stripper, a year before TAXI), plus live footage of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and a cameo by National Lampoon co-founder Douglas Kenney. It's oddly fitting that both it and FM have been resurrected on Blu-ray at exactly the same time.



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