Editor’s Desk: This review originally ran on October 18, 2019, as part of our 2019 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge. We’ve brought it back for John Doe Week.
By 1988, underground “college rock” bands began to bubble under the mainstream and crossed over onto mainstream AOR stations still waste deep in the likes of the hair metal bands Winger, Slaughter, and Poison. And while the audio nimrods didn’t play the newly “major label signed” Husker Du (to Warner Bros.) and The Replacements (Sire), and gave record-industry guru David Geffen of Asylum Records (home of classic rock mainstays, the Eagles) the snub when his new label, DGC, signed New York noise-merchants, Sonic Youth, those spandex bastions did begin to “experiment” with the “more commercial” likes of the Cure, Jane’s Addiction, and Love and Rockets. Yeah, they spun Alice in Chains, but were still not quite ready to pluck Soundgarden from Seattledom.
Then, slowly, while those stations still bowed to the dynasties built by Led Zeppelin and Hendrix, you began to hear less Winger and more of the “false grunge” of Candlebox, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots, and (B&S Movies’ proprietor Sam’s favorite bands) Creed and Bush. Then, instead of Slaughter ad nauseam, you heard a little trio out of Seattle ad nauseam—and overnight America became a nation of coffee houses with hep-baristas adorned in $50 JC Penny designer flannel shirts and $150 Macy’s faux Doc Martins.
1991: The Year Punk Broke (full movie/Daily Motion), indeed. Flux Capacitor me to 1985, Doc Brown. I need to be sedated, Joey.
I started my radio career in the early breakers of the Seattle new-wave, working at a small, technically inept, stodgy and dying non-commercial FM that somehow, we, the staffers, convinced our clueless “L7” bosses to give an all-“alternative” format a try and dare rock ‘n’ roll lovers—not interested in blues babbling, folk hootenannies, jazz noodling, plunked banjos, and book reviews—to tune into our audio graveyard left of the dial. And it worked.
And thanks to an indifferent “voice of a generation” who blew his brains out a few years later, the two battling classic (ass-ic) rock stations in town became “rock alternative” outlets overnight and decided the alt-nation wanted to hear the (bane of my existence) Crash Test Dummies and Spin Doctors, and some chick named Torn Anus, I mean, Tori Amos, caterwauling like humping cats on a hot summer night about girls and corkflakes.
So, the tales of WXOX 90.6 Providence, Rhode Island, in the frames of A Matter of Degrees are near and dear to this DJ’s heart. The new film through 20th Century Fox’s specialty arm, Fox Lorber (Independent Magazine article), along with its accompanying soundtrack on Atlantic (the track-listing read like the playlist of one of my airshifts), was heavily promoted in all of the alt-rock mags of the day: Alternative Press, B-Side, CMJ, and Option (good reads!). It was probably even in the alt-section of the mainstream radio trades The Hard Report, FMQB, and Rockpool; it’s been so long, I can’t recall.
The staff of my radio station was stoked. The film was directed by W.T Morgan, who directed the alt-essential concert doc, X—The Unheard Music, and X’s John Doe was starring. Fred Schneider and Kate Pierson from the B-52s had roles as DJs alongside Doe, and North Carolina’s hottest college-rock band, Fetchin’ Bones, who just got bumped up to Capitol Records, had a role.
And we were eventually crushed. What we thought was going to be a 1990 college rock radio version of the 1978 progressive rock radio chronicle FM—ended up being Friends: The College Campus Years. Then, we got alt-fucked again, by Cameron Crowe, with Friends: The First Year out of College, aka Singles (1993). Yeah, we got more “radio” with Airheads (1994)—but got more caterwauling cats in the “false grunge” screeches of 4 Non Blondes instead of Throwing Muses and the Breeders. At least Christian Slater’s alt-rock pirate in Pump Up the Volume (1990) cleaned out our Eustachian tubes. And I don’t need any Reality Bites (1994) from Lisa Loeb, either.
Well, at the time, courtesy of our Husker Du and Sonic Youth snobbishness, A Matter of Degrees seemed like a mainstream boondoggle produced by the same “suits” who decided to program songs about frolicking princes, chicks into cornflakes, and creepy, long-haired baritone Dean Martins humming stupid Canadian shite that was giving us A Flock of Seagulls when we wanted the Ramones. But as the VHS box patinas and the tape forecasts snow, I have come to love A Matter of Degrees—and its VHS and CD are a prized part of my collection because: it’s a time capsule that I wished never dissolved into the past.
A Matter of Degrees, written by Brown University alumni Jack Mason and Randall Poster, we come to find out, wasn’t about a radio station: the radio station served as a backdrop-linking device to a clever, ‘90s version The Graduate (1967), only with The Lemonheads (who ironically cut a cover of “Mrs. Robinson” for an early ‘90’s DVD reissue of the Dustin Hoffman hit) instead of Simon and Garfunkel backing the life-undecided, college campus hippiedom tales of Maxwell Glass (Ayre Gross; House II, Minority Report).
For Max, Providence, Rhode Island, isn’t a place: it’s a state of mind and that “mind” has been rattled by his being accepted into law school (he applied only to the hardest schools so he’d be rejected; he gets accepted to Columbia, the hardest of them all). Then he discovers his cherished campus radio station, which employs his friends Welles Dennard (the incredible Wendell Pierce; USA Network’s Suits, HBO’s The Wire, NBC’s Chicago P.D, Nicolas Cage’s It Could Happen to You) and Scuzz (the amazing-in-his-small-role Tom Gilroy; went onto work with R.E.M’s Michael Stipe and taught at Columbia University) is going to be torn down to make way for a research laboratory backed by a corporation that services the military. And when the station is rebuilt: the free-form format is out.
So, with an Abbie Hoffman-tenacity augmented with coursework titled “Interdisciplinary Approaches to Ethnicity,” Max is going to save the radio station—with arguments invoking the name of infamous ‘80s insider trader Ivan Boesky as a verb: Max speaks ill of the boyfriend of his feisty, Jerry and Elaine-styled best friend, Kate Blum (Judith Hoag; April O’Neill in Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles, pick a U.S TV series), who runs the radio station: “[Roger] Ivan Boeskied it for them.” Not even their college-dropout/car mechanic roommate, Zeno Stefanos (Tom Sizemore; True Romance, Natural Born Killers, Zyzzyx Road), who has a propensity to lug car bumpers through the house and make sandwiches by slapping undiluted Campbell’s pea soup between two piece of white bread, can’t get Max off his disillusioned, high sparklehorse: “Remember, women and animals hold up two-thirds of the sky,” Zeno zens. (Now I had my share of Ramdan noodles and peanut butter sandwiches for dinner back in the day, but raw soup sandwiches? I’m glad I didn’t get accepted into Brown.)
“Hey, whatever happened to John Doe? I thought he was in the movie?”
Doe is Peter Downs, the founder of the station who “blew five years in San Francisco recycling the hits like a goddamned monkey” (been there, done that) and returned to his job as the program director of WXOX because, “this is paradise.” Oh, and Peter has a bitch-be-crazy girlfriend, Isabella Allen (Christina Haag), who has Max’s nose wide open. (See what I mean about the Friends-relationship dithering and not enough radio station? Get the Aniston out of here!) In the end, the station and sounds of “Peter Downs and WXOX 90.6 Providence” that Max man-love croons from a shark-toyed bubble bath to a toilet-perched Kate, serves as a plot-character linking device (just like Taj Mahal’s Dix Mayal on WKOK in Outside Ozona).
A Matter of Degrees is a case of “you had to be there.” If you never experienced college campus life and being enamored by the left-of-the-dial “hits” crackling over the airwaves of its tin-can station or a local non-com, you’ll have a lukewarm response to the film. The fun Mason and Poster-penned script reminds me of The Graduate; however, it won’t be in the same classic league as The Graduate when it bounces off your retinas. Your gray matter will populate it as a Singles rip-off—only this film came first. It is, in fact, the first Gen-X, well “grunge,” film in our $5.00 cup-of-coffee flannelled landscape (and you can visit with those films in our “Exploring: 50 Gen-X Grunge Films of the Alt-Rock ’90s” overview.).
Chalk it up to nostalgia fogging my sight; with eyes that see all of my friends from the grunge epoch as I flashback to my views from the glass booth (as I cracked open a new album called Bleach by some band called Nirvana) in the spot-on-miscreant Scuzz, the cucumber-cool Welles, and the rest of the WXOX satellites.
“Rock and roll can save you!” urges Peter Downs.
It did, Peter. More than you will ever know.
Where to get and how to hear the CD soundtrack and see the VHS movie:
While A Matter of Degrees tanked as a theatrical feature (the Sundance crowd shrugged), it blossomed on the international home video marketplace, carrying the titles of Louco Por Rock (Crazy for Rock, Brazil), A tutto rock (Too All, Rock Italy), and in Poland, Radio Maxa (Maximum Radio), or, more accurately, “Radio to the Max.”
As with most of the failed films in the pre-DVD era unceremoniously dumped to VHS, A Matter of Degrees has never been released on DVD—not officially nor as a grey market DVD-R—and there are no online VHS rips. There are no CD rips (of the non-vinyl) soundtrack, but you can listen to this re-creation of the soundtrack I patched together on You Tube. You can also see the soundtrack’s liner notes at Discogs. Multiple copies of the CD soundtrack, the even rarer cassette version, and the VHS can be found on numerous seller sites, eBay in particular. Not finding it won’t be a problem.
Caveat Emptor: John Doe’s incredible theme song for the film, “A Matter of Degrees,” which appears on his debut solo album, Meet Joe Doe (1990; DGC) and the promotional EP single, A Matter of Degrees, does not appear on the soundtrack, which is baffling, considering he’s one of the leads of the film. You can watch John Doe perform the single on the study-helper-for-the-late-night college crowd (good times): The Late Show with David Letterman (there is just something “off” seeing John Doe as a “traditional” lead singer clutching a mic-stand and not wearing a bass). Let the video play through to watch David Letterman’s 1983 clueless-awkward interview with X (really, Dave: alphabet jokes?) as they promote “Breathless,” the soundtrack single to the Richard Geer remake of Francois Truffaut’s film (1960) of the same name. X also covered the ‘60s hit “Wild Thing” for Major League (1989).
As with John Doe: Fetchin’ Bones are in the film—performing their MTV 120 Minutes hit, “Love Crushing,” for a “Save WXOX Benefit” (where John F. Kennedy, Jr. shows up and serenades a girl with an acoustic guitar)—but their song doesn’t appear on the soundtrack. Go figure. And the film is dedicated to D.Boon (backed by Doe’s title-cut song in the film only), the late guitarist-singer of the Minutemen. Why does the post-D.Boon outgrowth of the Minutemen, Firehose, appear on the CD soundtrack, and the Minutemen do not? Double go figure. And don’t bother (poi-dog) pondering how the B-52s got soundtrack skunked. Seriously, this film needed to pull a Dazed and Confused (1993) and release an “Even more . . .” Volume 2 to contain all the great “college rock” in the film. (Oh, hey Kris Erikson, Uncle Tupelo made it onto the soundtrack!)
You can also learn more about Randall Poster’s success as a music supervisor, the art behind movie soundtracks, and his longtime collaborations with director Wes Anderson (2014’s Grand Budapest Hotel) courtesy of these print interviews conducted by WIPO Radio, The AVClub and New Music Express. As it seems there will never be a DVD restoration replete with a commentary track, these interviews are the only way to gain insights on how A Matter of Degrees was and came to be made. (Jim Dunbar, who portrayed DJ Frank Dell, also amassed over 60 credits as a music supervisor, some in the company of Poster.)
In Poster’s post-1990 interview with the alternative music trade NME—New Music Express, he had this say on why he gave up on screenwriting and producing to work exclusively as a music supervisor on films (2012’s Skyfall, 2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street; he won a 2011 Grammy for “Best Compilation Soundtrack” for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire):
“I was always a big music lover, a record collector and an avid movie fan. I got through university studying English Literature, and I found myself without any professional direction. I wrote a screenplay with a friend of mine [Jack Mason] about a college radio station. We did a lot of new songs for it, and we did a record and I just felt that that was really what I wanted to focus on. I wanted to work with great directors, so I figured if I made music my focus, and that would enable me to do [work with great directors; like Wes Anderson].”
Poster also tells us that his college radio love letter was not only filmed in Providence: much of it was shot at Brown University. Poster and Mason were inspired by the college’s campus radio station, WBRU, changeover from a free-form to commercial format in 1985. They wrote the screenplay after graduation. It took them five years, but they got it made. And that’s awesome.
How beloved is A Matter of Degrees? This post at the Radio Survivor blog, written by fellow AMOD fan, Jennifer Waits, proves this cherished time capsule of ‘80s college radio has fans that want, and need, a DVD release of the movie (hint to Kino Lorber!).
Then there’s new fans—of this almost 30 year old movie—like General Manager Sharon Scott of the streaming-community station Art x FM. When she put the new, low-powered community FM (LPFM) outlet in Louisville on the air, she was granted the WXOX-LP call letters. According to Sharon, she didn’t know about A Matter of Degrees or its fictional radio station until well after the station received the call letters. Then, she spotted the movie’s promotional sticker on the door at WRFL and was taken aback that it was the same call letters she had chosen.
It looks like Louisville has found its audio salvation! “WXOX Louisville can save you!”
You can learn more about the new WXOX and Sharon Scott’s fight to save WRVU-FM, Vanderbilt College’s radio station, after students lost access to its terrestrial signal. The Radio Survivor article also provides links to learn more about the history of Brown University’s WBRU.
Peter Downs was right: “Rock ‘n’ Roll Can Save You!”
(And don’t believe the Hype! (1996; full movie/TubiTV) they’re selling!)