Los Angeles, 1978. QSky FM has become the number one radio station for rock fans and dedicated manager Jeff Dugan (Michael Brandon) is ecstatic. He has an unwavering passion for his job, ensuring that they always play the very best music – uninterrupted. As he promises it’s “less sell, more sound”. The station is home to an eclectic bunch of quirky DJs, including the crazy Eric Swan (Martin Mull), Mother (Eileen Brennan) with her soothing tones and the effortlessly cool Prince of Darkness (Blazing Saddles star Cleavon Little). They sit in booths, surrounded by racks stacked floor to ceiling with vinyl, and their unique style has earned them legions of adoring fans.
QSky might rule the airwaves, but behind the scenes there is disharmony and something disagreeable is about to upset the applecart. There are rumblings from the higher echelons of power that they need to boost profits and introduce advertising (the outrage!). The tipping point comes when Dugan is pressured into running a cheesy recruitment campaign for the army. Disgusted by what is being allowed to happen to his beloved station, Dugan dramatically quits. His distraught colleagues, fearing the magic will be lost forever, decide it’s time to take a stand.
If a movie was judged purely on the quality of its soundtrack, FM would be an irrefutable classic. The music that plays throughout is fabulous, perfectly encapsulating hit sounds of the era. There’s a veritable feast of classics by the likes of Foreigner, Steely Dan, The Eagles, Tom Petty, The Doobie Brothers and REO Speedwagon - the list is seemingly endless. The problem is that the script (by Erza Sacks) plays second fiddle to the music and a very capable cast are short-changed as a result.
I didn’t care much for the central plot. Why is the military singled out to be reviled and its representative, Lieutenant Reach (overplayed by James Keach), depicted as such a buffoon? This is not really an anti-war film – it was released several years after the conflict in Vietnam had ended. Besides, Dugan believes advertising of any kind is bad. We now live in a time where broadcasters often find themselves embroiled in much bigger scandals, sometimes fighting to retain their careers. Furthermore, advertising has become ever more prevalent in our lives, often essential for keeping businesses afloat. Therefore, the storyline here doesn’t seem particularly controversial, or grab hold as it should.
The cast have fun with their roles and some of the hijinks are amusing, helping to paper over other inadequacies. TV veteran Mull is good value as DJ Swan, who always has the perfect excuse – or so he thinks - for when things go wrong during a live show. Brandon has plenty of charisma in the lead and probably deserved to have become a bigger star in Hollywood, if only he’d consistently picked better material. Argento fans might remember him for starring in Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971), but in the UK he’s probably more widely known for 80s cop show Dempsey and Makepeace. I wished that Little had been afforded more screen time as, like many of the characters, his role is woefully underdeveloped.
There are numerous sub-plots, one involving QSky constantly trying to get the upper hand over chief rival station KLAX. This prompts them to cheekily broadcast a concert by Linda Ronstadt that KLAX had sponsored. Footage of Ronstadt performing in Houston is inserted mid-way through the film. Considering the film was directed by acclaimed DoP John A. Alonzo (famed for his dazzling work on Chinatown among others), I would have expected the concert sequences to be shot with far more panache, yet they seem a little flat.
For a moment I thought they were going to include Ronstadt’s entire show too. As much as I enjoyed her music, thankfully they don’t, though after three songs it seriously slows down the narrative. A shorter concert scene featuring Jimmy Buffet – performing to save the whales no less – works much better. Alonzo shot the film with Panavision lenses and while much of the film is confined to the studio, the widescreen frame is put to excellent use later during a crowded street sequence where the people stand defiantly as Queen’s "We Will Rock You" blasts out in the background.
Following its theatrical release in the US, FM disappeared rapidly from screens amidst lukewarm reviews, whereas the soundtrack went on to go Platinum - which speaks volumes.
Retaining the original 2.35:1 ratio, FM makes its UK debut on Blu-ray. The film carries a 12 certificate and, according to BBFC records, this is the first time it has been submitted for UK classification since its cinema release 41 years ago (where it carried an “A” rating under the old system). The source used for this release is in good shape, with the image bright and detailed throughout and showing no discernible signs of damage. There's only some light filmic grain visible. The film also comes with a stereo 2.0 PCM soundtrack, which is suitably dynamic.
Arrow Video has furnished this release with a raft of new interviews.
No Static at All (25:05): In an entertaining interview, star Michael Brandon explains how he came to be cast in FM, discussing the production and casting. It’s worth watching for a priceless anecdote he tells about having to gain Linda Ronstadt’s approval to film her concert in Houston.
Radio Chaos (23:24): Writer Erza Sacks discusses his career, starting out as a film critic for a LA radio station in the seventies, with the inherent craziness around him inspiring the script for this film. He credits Verna Fields for getting it made, who had become an exec at Universal, having previously worked as an editor on some of their biggest hits (including Spielberg’s Jaws). Sacks talks of how he often disagreed with director John Alonzo over scenes in the film, and points out the clout of producer Irving Azoff that gave them access to a wealth of illustrious rock artists. He also mentions the film’s mixed reception upon its release in 1978.
Spirit of Radio (23:00): Glenn Kenny guides us through those super sounds of the seventies, discussing significant bands featured in the film and analysing lyrics found in their tracks.
Isolated Music & Effects Track
Gallery: Features extensive production stills, posters, lobby cards and soundtrack designs.
Reversible sleeve featuring two original artwork options
Illustrated collector's booklet (first pressing only and not available for review) featuring new writing on the film by writer and critic Paul Corupe.