Zoo Radio (1990)

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S Movies.

It’s the start of award season and ahead of its Friday, December 13th nationwide opening, Bombshell, the Jay Roach-directed film about the Fox News-Roger Ailes scandal, walked away with four nominations: one for Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture, in addition to three individual nominations for Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie.

You know Jay Roach from his back-to-back 1997 and 1999 hits with Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery and Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. Then there’s Meet the Parents (2000) and Meet the Fockers (2004). And in between those films, Roach had another hit with his third James Bond parody, Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002).

Transitioning from comedy into drama, Roach collected multiple awards with his political-trilogy cable-films Recount (2008), Game Change (2012), and All the Way (2016). Meanwhile, on the big screen, his biographical drama, Trumbo (2015), starring Brian Cranston (TV’s Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle), garnered twenty nominations for various awards, including an Academy Award Best Actor nod for Cranston.

But before those hits, before the critical kudos and awards, Jay Roach—an Albuquerque, New Mexico-born economics graduate from Stanford University and a fresh-out-of-film-school grad from the University of Southern California—had to start, somewhere.

And that “somewhere” was a low-budget indie comedy produced for $500,000 by the film’s screenwriter, Jessie Wells. Courtesy of post-production tinkering by Wells, without Roach’s input or knowledge, the film that Roach shot isn’t the film that ended up being released—and he disowned the film. (His only film, Wells disappeared from the industry.)

According to the VHS box, Zoo Radio was intended to be the comedy successor to 1978’s Animal House and 1981’s Porky’s as a motley staff operating an underground radio station, “94.5 FM KLST K-Lost,” fight a hostile takeover by their slick, top-rated cross-town rival, KWIN.

The takeover is initiated by the death of an eccentric broadcast tycoon who wills his Los Angeles radio properties to his two sons: one a frowned upon, bumbling idiot, the other a favored success. Under the terms of their father’s will, rival radio station managers Burt and John Powell must compete with each other for their inheritance. Burt’s KLST and John’s KWIN have six months to build their ratings. Whichever station generates the highest ad revenues at the end of six months, that station gains control of the competing station and receives a $60 million dollar estate.

While the concept of dropping the Cain and Abel-influenced Trask brothers from 1955’s East of Eden into the ratings-competitive field of broadcasting—switching out the raunchy frat-house for a bawdy radio station—is inspired, the resulting film is. . . .

Regardless of actor Ron E. Dickinson’s enthused turn as Otto, he the resident John “Bluto” Belushi of the proceedings, producing a few, genuine chuckles, it doesn’t save Zoo Radio from being the most utterly inaccurate portrayal of a radio station ever committed to film, a film rife with a succession of groan-inducing puns (such as feeding burritos and beer to cat so it farts on cue) and even worse amateur acting. While Howard Stern’s Private Parts (1997) and Kevin Costner’s The Upside of Anger (2005) are the gold standards of radio station portrayals on film, Zoo Radio is. . . .

Who wouldn’t queue for a raunchy radio comedy—especially one where 1978’s FM collides with 1994’s Airheads? Sadly, what we ended up with is a bad film, but a film replete with MTV-era youthful nostalgia courtesy of Zoo Radio appearing on USA Network’s weekend Up All Night programming block alongside our beloved T&A trash classics of H.O.T.S, Lunch Wagon, and Sorority Babes in the Slime Bowl-A-Rama.

Yeah, respected, award-winning directors have to start somewhere . . . just ask Paul Feig, who starred as KLST’s blind, stuttering DJ, Chester Drawers. After Feig made his mark in television as the creator of the realistic high school drama, Freaks and Geeks (1999), he directed a series of his own, raunchy comedies: Bridesmaids (2011), Heat (2013), Spy (2015), and Ghostbusters (2016).

Even multi-platinum selling guitarist Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi had to start, somewhere . . . with his band, Shark Frenzy, which posthumously appears on the film’s (never released) soundtrack. And no, that’s not Wall of Voodoo’s Stan Ridgway reimaging his ‘80s hit “Mexican Radio” as the film’s title cut theme song—it’s a shockingly well-done mimic created by an artist (un) known as Cosmo Jimmy.

Zoo Radio has never been officially issued to DVD, so beware of those grey market DVD-Rs . . . and know your regions, if you must. You can watch a VHS rip of the film on You Tube, seen below. Used VHS copies run from $30 to $40 in the online marketplace.

You need more radio on film? Then check out A Matter of Degrees, Open House and Outside Ozona, which were reviewed as part of the 2019 Scarecrow Challenge. There’s a few more radio station-set films in our Grunge film extravaganza, “Exploring: 50 Gen-X Grunge Films of the Alt-Rock ‘90s.”

And be sure to check out this Letterboxd list of all of the films that appeared on Up All Night, which aired from 1989 to 1998.

 

2019 Scarecrow Psychotronic Challenge: Day 18: Option 3: A Matter of Degrees (1990)

About the Author: You can read the music and film reviews of R.D Francis on Medium and learn more about his work on Facebook. He also writes for B&S Movies.

Day 18 Only on VHS: Watch something on the true psychotronic format

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), 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; see my Option 2 review for “Day 18 Only on VHS”).

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 that’s a B&S Movies tribute week idea right there: “Exploring: Gen-X Grunge Films”).

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!)

FM (1978)

Michael Brandon (Four Flies on Grey Velvet) stars as Jeff Dugan, the ultra-cool program director at Q-SKY Radio, LA’s number one rock station. Never mind the fact that the station has the frequency 71.1, which is impossible in the US as the FCC frequency range goes from 87.8 to 108.0. Also, in the US, there are no radio stations with “Q” prefixes: East of the Mississippi, all stations begin with “W,” while stations west of the Mississippi start “K.” There’s only one major exception — KDKA in Pittsburgh. In Canada, stations use “C,” while “X” is utilized for stations in Mexico.

Q-SKY has all manner of crazy on-air personalities, like Mother, who sounds a lot like Alison Steele, the Nightbird, who also inspired Stevie in The Fog (others have said she’s based on Mary “The Burner” Turner from KMET). She’s played by Eileen Brennan from The Last Picture Show. There’s also The Prince of Darkness (Cleavon Little, who beyond Blazing Saddles, Surf II and Once Bitten also played the DJ Super Soul in the movie that inspired Tarantino’s Death ProofVanishing Point), low rated Doc Holliday (former Detroit Lion Alex Karras), his replacement Laura Coe (Cassie Yates, The Evil) and Eric Swan (Martin Mull!) who is obsessed with being a success in show business and with women. 

Despite Jeff getting the station to number one in the number two market in the country, his corporate bosses only want him to sell more advertising time. Then, sales manager Regis Lamar gets him a deal to advertise for the Army, he refuses. His bosses order him to run the ads so he quits. The remaining DJs protest by locking themselves in and even physically battling the police.

Everything works out — the station’s owner (Norman Lloyd, Jaws of Satan and Amityville 4: The Evil Escapes) is inspired by the DJs and fires the sales staff. Meanwhile, dumped by his true love and fired by his manager, Eric Swan has a mental breakdown while on the air.

Director John A. Alonzo, then noted as a cinematographer on Vanishing Point, Chinatown, Black Sunday and — after this film — Scarface, made his directorial debut with FM.

Screenwriter Ezra Sacks worked at Los Angeles’ fabled FM station KMET in the early 70’s when AOR — Album Oriented Rock — was in its infancy and being created by KMET program director Mike Herrington. The Army commercial incident depicted by Sacks in the film is based on an actual on-air incident in which KMET’s top-rated nighttime DJ, Jim Ladd (On the Air Live with Captain Midnight) ran an anti-army commentary on the air after running an army spot. The incident is chronicled in Ladd’s autobiography, Radio Waves: Life and Evolution on the FM Dial.

The head of MCA Irving Azoff participated in the making of the film as executive producer, but he disowned it before release and asked that his name be removed from the credits, as he felt that the film was “not an authentic representation of the music business” and that the studio didn’t give him creative control over the film, particularly when it came to the music. Then again, nearly every band in this movie was on MCA. You know — a movie all about rock and roll and rebellion with Jimmy Buffett in it. A negative soundtrack review by Rolling Stone magazine pointed out the music was heavily biased towards “commercial” musicians who Irving Azoff managed — in conflict with the so-called rebellious, progressive-underground rock format practiced by the very stations on which FM’s faux-station was based.

Another funny point of contention is that AM stations made their own edit of the movie’s theme song, Steely Dan’s “FM (No Static at All),” by clumsily interjecting the letter A in the title from the song “Aja” so that the song became “AM” on their channels.

Finally, while some claim that the TV show WKRP in Cincinnati was based on FM — an easy mistake, with so many characters seeming so similar (WKRP’s “Venus Flytrap” vs. FM’s “Prince of Darkness” in particular) — WKRP series creator Hugh Wilson has claimed that the sitcom was already in development and I’ve also read that a pilot had already been shot. Seeing as how the show debuted in September and this movie came out in April, that was a real worry. But by the time the show aired on CBS, many had forgotten this movie.

For years, this has been a difficult release. The soundtrack gave the film issues when it was released, with multiple versions being released due to the lack of clearing music rights. In fact, this movie was originally on our list of movies that have never been on released on DVD until Arrow made the announcement that they were releasing it.

The film includes “acting” appearances by Tom Petty and REO Speedwagon, along with live performances by Linda Ronstadt and Jimmy Buffett (who recite a few lines of dialog in the process); Steely Dan performs the title theme, which became a real-life radio hit. The Eagles, James Taylor, Bob Seger, Dan Fogelberg, Billy Joel, and Queen were also featured on the Platinum-plus soundtrack album. While the soundtrack became more popular than the actual film it promoted and there was a need to repress copies, it was stymied by clearance rights; it was remedied by having a group of session musicians — Studio 78 — cut an all-covers version for bargain label, Pickwick.

In addition to a high definition 1080p presentation of the film — transferred from original film elements — this blu ray also includes new interviews with the movie’s star Michael Brandon, its writer Ezra Stacks and a video appreciation of the era of FM radio and the soundtrack of the film by Glenn Kenny.

You can get FM from Arrow Video or directly from MVD.

Thanks to R.D Francis for his help with this article, as FM is one of his favorite films.

DISCLAIMER: This movie was sent to us by Arrow Video, but that has no impact on our review.