James Cole Clay has been working as a film critic for the better part of a decade covering new releases, blu ray reviews and the occasional drive-in cult classic. His writing is dedicated to discovering social politics through diverse voices, primarily focusing on Women In Film and LGBTQ cinema.
From Wolfman Jack to Kidd Kraddick, the myth of the American DJ has soothed our ears and gave us a reason to tune into that ol’ radio dial from AM to XM. But in film there have only been a handful of real memorable disc jockeys that have captured the heart of millions.
When the DJ puts on the cans and gets ready to turn on the mic, the connection to the audience is what matters most, not their age, race, shape or size. It’s a powerful medium that can affect thousands if not millions of listeners.
Part of the myth of the DJ is that we can’t see them, and pre-Google, most listeners didn’t even know what they looked like. Even in an age of podcasts, audio is an incredibly intimate experience, that at times can fill the void of a long lost friend just dropping by to say hello. The biggest issue that has afflicted DJs on film is being able to see their face. When you can read their body language and realize they put their pants on one leg at a time, it takes away the ominous voice in the box and turns it into a concrete, being that it is essentially humanized– unless it’s done properly, which happens few and far between.
BUT, have no fear with the release of the Zac Efron spinster vehicle WE ARE YOUR FRIENDS, the editorial team at Fresh Fiction curated a few notable DJ’s in film that are worthy of giving a spin.
Directed by Spike Lee
Spike Lee’s polarizing DO THE RIGHT THING made an artistic and commercial impact in 1989. The upfront attitude of racial tensions, as well as the uneasy mood the film projects, stands the test of time. Even last year as the riots in Ferguson exploded onto the national scene, there were a lot of comparisons to the death of Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn) and its ensuing riot to burn down Sal’s. However, there needed to be someone without bias to steady the flow of the film. Throughout the whole film, there are breaks in the visual narrative by Mister Senor Love Daddy (Samuel L. Jackson), Bed-Stuy’s local radio personality.
While Love Daddy performs with the gusto of a disc jockey, he simultaneously provides an omniscient third party perspective to guide the audience. He provides context to the atmosphere of the neighborhood, as well as commentary for the racial tensions that come to a boil in the film’s climax. He sets the mood in his introduction, talking about how hot it is today; most of his appearances talk about the current climate, as weather and as social climate. Also, in his first scene, he lets the audience know he is without bias, saying phrases like “…I’m the yin AND the yang, the HIP and the HOP…” Without his presence, DO THE RIGHT THING might have been somewhat one-sided to the viewer, hindering the story’s description of the universal problem that is race relations. And that’s the truth, Ruth.
– Jared McMillan
Directed by Barry Levinson
You can’t compile this list without mentioning the late Robin Williams. It’s almost too difficult to get the words out and not over-eulogize him here, especially since this was the film that put him on the map and made him known. Now, admittedly, GOOD MORNING VIETNAM is hardly a perfect film, and it was hardly Williams’ best work. However, who could forget Williams shouting the title of the film, followed by a big smile afterwards?
Inspired by real-life namesake, Saigon-based DJ Adrian Cronauer, Williams came into his own. His ad-libbed Armed Forces Radio programs, brisk one-liners, impressions (oh, those impressions), characters, pop culture references, and voice-made sound effects– it’s comic anarchy.
– Preston Barta
Directed by Betty Davis
Now, all bow down to the king of the airwaves Howard Stern. From a dorky goofball with glasses, to Fartman and finally culminating with his 100 million dollar deal with SiriusXM. The kid from Queens who invented “shock jocking” starred as himself in the autobiographical films from 1997, PRIVATE PARTS.
Following Stern throughout his whole life PRIVATE PARTS highlights the endearing and the raunchy moments of his illustrious career. On paper these types of biopics do not work, and largely Stern alongside director Betty Davis created a fluff piece about the controversial jockey; it’s fluff, but it’s a vacuous fluff that’s as delightful as the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. Stern’s portrayal of himself is a bit awkward when he’s trying for his dramatic beats, but damn, does he know how to be funny.
PRIVATE PARTS is earnest in its indictment of political correctness on the airwaves. From the (now) infamous scene of having a woman strip while giving Stern a massage, to his arch nemesis—WNBC Program Director aptly nick-named “Pig Vomit”—played by the great Paul Giamatti. Stern isn’t for everybody and PRIVATE PARTS may hang brain a little too often, but it’s damn bold– and that’s something to respect.
– Cole Clay
Directed by Allan Moyle
Two years after playing his James Dean-like character in HEATHERS, Christian Slater gave us the prime example of a good DJ. He gulped down Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi, smoke cigs and chewed Black Jack gum like no other. As a DJ, Slater’s Mark Hunter, aka “Hard Harry,” cued choice cuts from the Beastie Boys, Pixies and Soundgarden. But even better than his music selections were his rants. He cut “deep” chatting about the truth of the world, clueless parents, suicide, and the exhausted ways of suburban life. Slater’s intensity and dry delivery gave PUMP UP THE VOLUME its edge and replay value.
– Preston Barta
Directed by Oliver Stone
Radical talk radio has ruled the airwaves since right-winged pundit Rush Limbaugh gave himself the infamous “Golden Microphone” back in 1984. This already sounds a bit Orwellian, but director Oliver Stone’s proclivity for controversy wouldn’t have it any other way. Paired with Eric Bogosian the two created a character so unlikable you can’t turn away as we follow the hated yet popular Dallas talk show host Barry Champlain (Bogosian). Trapped inside his head on the eve before his show goes into national syndication, Barry goes through the seven stages of his ego: “do they love me, do they hate me, am I a fraud”– you know the text book signs of a narcissist.
This was a sleeper back in 1988 despite the presence of director Stone, who was white hot after coming off PLATOON. This drama comments on the effects mainstream media has upon it’s listeners and the price America pays for freedom of speech. – Cole Clay
WE ARE YOUR FRIENDS opens tomorrow. You can check out our review here.