Dirk’s Five: Cinema On The Radio

Is there anybody alive out there?

Springsteen, Radio Nowhere

After cinema and literature, radio is my next love. I am voracious in my appetite and omnivorous in my diet: I consume music and speech in equal measure.

Cinema and radio are uncomfortable bedfellows. There seems to be two thematic approaches to radio in films: the psychotic relationship between radio personalities and their audience, or a dewy-eyed nostalgia for the romance of radio. The latter may explain why there was a sudden explosion of films about radio in the mid 80s to the early 90s – film-makers coming of age in the 40s and 50s wanted to pay homage to the medium that provided the common-ground of their youth. The most significant example is RADIO DAYS (1987) – Woody Allen’s most profoundly autobiographical reflection upon how the radio wove itself into the tapestry of his family life. I have left it from the list below, because I’ve banged on about him quite enough.

Film being a visual medium, it seems to struggle with the omnipotence of the DJ and tries to focus the action on to a handful of characters. The least successful moments of PUMP UP THE VOLUME are when the action cuts to a round-robin of Happy Harry Hard On’s audience, who are hanging on his every word. There are those that focus on the solitary nature of the radio personality: TALK RADIO (Stone, US, 1988) features Eric Bogosian, starring in an adaptation of his own stage play, prowling the confines of the studio like a caged animal, provoking his audience and absorbing their scorn.

I have been trying to find a reference to the radio in a movie earlier than THE YOUNG ONES (1961) where Cliff and his pals use a pirate radio station to promote their youth club. I’d be interested if you have any earlier recommendations … ok, let me play these, before I crash the vocals…

Radio On! Radio On!

PLAY MISTY FOR ME (Eastwood, US, 1971)


Clint’s directorial debut, where he plays Dave Garvey a DJ who gets too close to an obsessive fan. Jessica Walter plays the listener who has a psychological challenges and a predilection for the lounge-Jazz classic ‘Play Misty for Me’.

Its interesting because of its obvious indebtedness that Clint had to his friend and mentor Don Siegel, but its slow-burning intensity also set the template for many obsessive-psychotic-bitches that followed (FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE (1982) etc.)



The model for Happy Harry Hard-on’s deep-throated banter was Wolfman Jack who was a famous American, late-night DJ in the 60s. He was known for his trademark howl and borderline smut – “squeeze my knobs” – that held teenage audiences in his thrall. Part of his appeal was the mystery around where he broadcast from and what he looked like. His radio performances bind together the coming-of-age episodes in AMERICAN GRAFFITI in a similar manner to K.Billy’s Super Sounds of the 70s in RESERVOIR DOGS (1992). Richard Dreyfus learns where the Wolfman broadcasts his show from and he goes in search of him. He finds the radio station, but he encounters a mysterious figure who doles out advice.

He realises that the mysterious figure is the Wolfman himself, making an appearance in the film for a complementary point on the profits. The success of Lucas’ film meant that he was sorted for the rest of his days.

GOOD MORNING , VIETNAM (Levinson, US, 1987)


After a decade or more of soul-searching about American activity in Saigon audiences were just about ready for something with a lighter touch. Essentially this is a vehicle for Robin Williams brand of manic, coke-induced babble. He plays Adrian Cronauer, an American Airforce radio DJ, who entertains the troops with his inane insane banter. His superior officers don’t like his blend of humour and rock n’ roll so they conspire various methods to get him out of the way.

Its probably William’s most palatable performance since Mork.


Alan Partridge in the studio

In the 1970s sit-com adaptations strode the British Box-Office like a colossus, a big wobbly-bottomed colossus. While New Hollywood was redefining Western cinema, Britons were guffawing to HOLIDAY ON THE BUSES (1973). People are sniffy about it nowadays, probably because the state of the Brit-sit-com has been in a barren patch since the hey-day of the 70s. There are a couple of exceptions and Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge has provided two excellent series. The self-important, down on his luck, desperate, Daily Mail reading Alan began as a satire on the small-minded micro-celebrities that dominated television with their punditry and banality for years before being flushed out and replaced with Danny Baker. Now Coogan has grown into the character (to such an extent that he has struggled to shake it off) and this film is testament to how he has developed the character.

It had me at the trailer. I only wish that they had used “Colossal Velocity” as a title.

Hang the DJ!



Known as PIRATE RADIO in US this is a mis-fire from the usually sure-footed Curtis. Loosely based on the antics of the British Pirate radio stations of the 1960s, who went off-shore to avoid the strict legislation governing broadcasting in the UK, it uses an ensemble cast to tell a very long story of sex, drugs and roll n’ roll.

The main problem with the film is the scene where Nick Frost courts a woman so that he can do a bedroom switch with a young 18 year old lad who wants to lose his virginity. Richard Herring pointed out that this is taking the Cyrano de Bergerac routine a bit too far.


8 responses to “Dirk’s Five: Cinema On The Radio

  1. Loved ‘Pirate Radio’ however you do bring up a great point where the focus on the sex took away from the film’s story. And GMV and Radio Days are excellent examples of your love for radio on film. I would add Robert Altman’s last film, ‘A Prairie Home Companion’. Great post!

  2. I love Jack Nicholson’s depressive late-night talk radio host in ‘The King of Marvin Gardens’.

    “I promised that I would tell you why I never eat fish…”

    Also the local radio station in the lighthouse is central to the plot in John Carpenter’s ‘The Frog’.

    • Yes – I’d forgotten about The Fog. I’ve not seen The King … It’s been on my PVR box since Christmas … Will check it out.

      There’s something appealing about the late night radio host. Still no takers for my pitch for ‘Alan Beswick the Red Rose years’ …

      • It’s Malcolm’s Bob Rafelson pick, I thought you watched his whole list?

        I should’ve thought of the opening shot for your list of great close ups: Nicholson is delivering a long rambling monologue but you don’t realise he’s a DJ on the air until a weird red light comes on and it cuts away from the close up.

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