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Cinema’s Top 10 Radio D.J.’s

by Warren Cantrell on Dec.09, 2013, under Film Lists

The radio disc jockey is a dying breed, much like the newspaper editor or appliance repairman.  What was once considered essential has been relegated to something of a luxury in an age where the computer and cheap electronics have made former necessities mostly moot.  Although it’s likely that some small section of society will continue to tune in to the AM/FM dials (anything free is hard to shake), as time goes on, it seems folks have grown increasingly frustrated with other people measuring out their entertainment quotas.  At a time when everybody in the western world has an iPod, it seems silly that someone would subject themselves to the pacing and tastes of an industry that has always been in place to sell records first, and entertain second.  No, those of us who give a damn want it our way, and that usually means discarding some caustic jockey-talk squeezed in between 30-second car-stereo install ads.  Yet there was a time before podcasts, before satellite broadcasting, when the D.J. was all-powerful.  He or she controlled the pace, mood, and proclivities of their particular community, and even though they might not have been personally picking the tunes, they were in the captain’s chair when it came to presenting them to the world.  These people gave us free concert tickets, made outstanding prank calls, interviewed drunk and stoned celebrities only minutes after they’d woken, and most importantly, they told us where our hearts should be on a given day.  Especially in the 50s and 60s, when music was legitimately frightening to legions of parents unaccustomed to tunes without full orchestra accompaniments, these D.J.’s represented the lighthouse beacon for an emerging counter-culture looking for a voice.  Some films have taken note of this powerful role, and the truly daring ones have explained how this is still possible today with an exceptionally bold presence behind the mic.  So let’s get down to brass tacks, shall we?  While they might be awesome, and represent a fairly healthy core of my closest friends (I’m looking at you, DJ Hartbreaks and DJ Ill Storms), this list is limited to radio-based disc-jockeys only, for the break and phunk-based variety constitute an entirely different list.

 

To make it into contention, the D.J. in question had to not only have blasted some sweet tunes, but also represented a larger part of the movie’s story.  This is thrown down right from the get-go because we’re not just throwing anybody onto this list, but only those D.J.’s that transcended their gap-filling role in the plot to play a larger part in the film’s action.  Let’s take a moment to briefly mention a few close contenders, as there were a couple close calls when deciding who would make the cut today, and who would not.  That ominous chick from The Warriors just about got a slot, but simply didn’t have enough screen-time or thematic presence to justify a nod.  Stephen Root from O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? also just missed out on the ranking, as the audience never got a good look at him slappin’ wax.  Joey Pants from Eddie and the Cruisers was also considered, along with much of the cast from the recently released Pirate Radio.  Problem there was the former movie was good with far too little D.J., while the latter was awful whilst lousy with record spinners.  To make this list, there had to be something of a balance; so, with that out of the way, let’s get to work!

 

 

 

10.) Liam Norton from Wet Hot American Summer

This one squeaked into contention, not because the D.J. or the movie was lacking, but because, technically, the kid was never on the air.  You see, the counselors at Camp Firewood weren’t particularly interested in the well being of their charges, something pretty damn clear considering the strategy employed if any of the little bastards got hurt (essentially, rolling them out of a moving van at top-speed and fleeing the scene).  Just about everything at Camp Firewood revolved around the counselors getting stoned or laid, and if they weren’t doing either of those delicious activities, then they were pissed about it, and passed that aggression on to the kids.  When they were smoking or fucking, then God help those poor children, for there certainly wasn’t attention enough to go around to see to their well-being.  Whether it was a kid driving a powerboat at top-speed in a lake teeming with swimmers, or an entire canoeing expedition getting ditched so their ride could get his dick wet, those campers didn’t seem to get a hell of a lot of counseling, per se.

 

Nowhere was this more evident than with the camp D.J., “Arty” who was allowed to perform on-air in seemingly marathon stretches.  It seemed the kid had a minor hygiene problem, and his love of a cloistered environment appeared to fit in well with the smelly punk’s love of broadcasting.  The counselors enjoyed the arrangement, anyway, and only really got on the boy’s case about his bathing when they knew the arrival of parents was immanent.  You get the sense that Arty might have had a pretty solid future in radio, anybody that can go on the air for days at a time in seeming bliss a person destined for the broadcasting profession.  Smooth behind the mic., yet obviously chalked full of problems without it, this kid was the ultimate D.J. (albeit, without a signal).  Hell, with a little piss and vinegar, he might have grown up to resemble…

 

 

9.) Eric Bogosian from Talk Radio

This film was something of a disappointment, as is often the case with Oliver Stone’s work.  It’s tough, too, because you get the sense that if he just laid off the pipe and focused his attention, Oliver might just be able to put together the same quality of film as Platoon and Wall Street.  Both of those films pre-dated Talk Radio, and each did a far better job exploring their main characters whilst still providing a larger canvas through which the themes of the pictures could be explored.  Minus the director and John C. McGinley’s always reliable acting, the aforementioned films have almost nothing in common with Talk RadioPlatoon explored the nuances of everyday life for a fresh grunt newly in-country along with bigger concepts surrounding the ultimate futility of warfare, and the ambiguity of what makes an “enemy.”  Wall Street tackled the age-old struggle between lust, money, and power, and what drives a man to abandon his morals in the search for heightened social status.  Talk Radio simply took an interesting story, coked it up, and tried in vain to capture the renegade spirit of a slain D.J.

 

Though it brought up themes of intolerance and racism, it never really forced the audience to seriously consider either, and kept drawing its viewers into serious socio-political discussions only to abandon the topic and focus instead on a marriage even the film didn’t seem to care much about.  Though it provided some great scenes, and allowed the lead, Mr. Bogosian some great dialogue to throw at fictitious straw men, the blistering heat of the words on-air never successfully coupled with any larger ethos, something Wall Street and Platoon accomplished with seeming ease.  This is not to say that Bogosian failed in any sense of the word, as he did about as good a job as could be expected considering the pacing and ultimate execution of the film.  While not a great movie, credit should at least go to the lead, who channeled a mixture of Howard Stern and Johnny Rotten, yet ultimately came up short due to forces outside his control.

 

 

8.) Minnie Driver from Grosse Point Blank

Though many of you out there might argue for High Fidelity, your humble author is going to go out on a limb and claim this one as Mr. Cusack’s best film.  A true “black” comedy in the purest sense of the term, Grosse Pointe Blank was the story of a professional hit man going home for his 10 year high school reunion.  The picture succeeded because it deftly combined humor and action while still maintaining a tangible sense of heart.  Special mention should also be given to the movie’s cast, which brought in Dan Aykroyd, Alan Arkin, and Joan Cusack to bolster an already splendid set of leads.   Though he was battling for business turf with a rival vendor and in the middle of a messy dispute with his employers due to a botched assassination, Martin (Cusack) still found time to return to Michigan for his reunion.  Martin had fled Gross Pointe on the night of his prom, leaving his then-girlfriend in the lurch so that he could join the Army in a fit of nervous desperation.  Having returned a decade later to reevaluate his decision and what had consequently become of his life (and humanity), Martin found that his past had abandoned him.

 

His mother had gone pants-crapping insane, his childhood home was a remodeled convenient store, and his best friend had transformed into a middle-class yuppie.  As for his girl, she was still pretty much in the same place (physically, if not emotionally), yet was not at all ready to forgive and forget.  A local radio D.J., Minnie Driver’s “Debbie” had a lot of frustration in her heart, and wasn’t above using her broadcasting authority to squeeze her former lover.  Though initially shocked at Martin’s sudden reappearance, she quickly got back on point, and started using her air-time as a platform to turn the screws on Martin.  And this worked!  She maintained control of their relationship dynamic, impressed her ex- with a savvy sense of familiar spunkiness and personal growth, and ended up with her man by the end of the movie.  Other than that, she seemed to have a fondness for the Clash, which puts any D.J. high on this author’s personal list.  For this, and her willingness to use her position as a D.J. to get what she wanted, the 10rant gave her an honorable nod.

 

 

7.) Joe Mantegna from Airheads

This one fell beneath the umbrella of fond adolescent protectionism, for this film was a big part of this humble author’s youth.  All that aside, Airheads is pretty friggin’ hilarious, and knew just how seriously to take itself (pretty much not at all).  After Chazz, Rex, and Pip (The Lone Gunmen) got themselves into an accidental hostage situation, they realized that if they had to go to jail for accidentally holding up a radio station, that they were probably going to have to get everything out of the situation possible.  Thus, they teamed up with the station’s burned out, wistful D.J., “Ian the Shark,” played pretty respectably by Joe Mantegna, and started winning over all of L.A. with their rock and roll attitude and antics.

 

Though slow to come around at first due to the Lone Gunmen’s obvious imbecility, Ian saw the spark of true, undiluted rock and roll.  In a symbiotic exchange, Chazz and the boys got sage wisdom from a music veteran while the aging Ian discovered that there was hope for the future of rock, that the flame of rebellion and artistic integrity still burned with unchained ferocity.  In the end, Ian helped the boys through contract negotiations and police talk-offs, pushing the Lone Gunmen toward their musical destiny.  With attitude to spare and good intentions, Mantegna came close to edging out the next entrant, yet didn’t quite have the chops to beat out…

 

 

6.) Robin Williams from Good Morning, Vietnam

This film is of an unfortunate class of pictures that fared much better upon its release than in measured retrospect.  When Good Morning, Vietnam came out, this country’s presence in Vietnam was just barely a decade matured, and there was still a lot of ambivalence about the war, what it meant to the country, and most importantly, how it affected those who took part in it.  It would be a lot harder to make this film today, what with the heightened media presence in war-zones and the increased capacity (and acceptance) for soldiers to tell their stories right after their rotations had ended.  In 1987, the cynicism that had only just begun to seep into popular culture as it concerned the United States and its aggressive geo-political actions was still in its formative stages.  Though nationalist self-discovery had begun in earnest in the late-60s, the proceeding decade of overdoses, Presidential failures, and economically-fueled pessimism took the fire out of any conversation regarding Vietnam, for many were content to simply see their boys coming home.  For their part, many of those boys might have felt like talking, but most were not willing to listen, and those that were seemed unable to properly formulate a message through cinema that carried the weight of its subject-matter.

 

For while Vietnam may have opened the can of worms, and allowed this nation’s public opinion to influence the ultimate outcome of a war, that container was just as cracked and broken.  What remained inside was only looked upon, not shaken out for all to see, a process that would only come about after 2001 and two wars in the Middle East about which many Americans are still very, very confused.  Questions about why we went to war in South-east Asia were still too difficult to tackle via popular media, for even the scholars of 1987 were still grappling with the seeming futility of it all versus the horrific sacrifices and ultimate consequences.  The time was ripe for a movie that toyed with such notions, yet didn’t delve too deeply into them, and set the stage for Robin Williams’ turn as an Air Force D.J. that had the gall to excite and inspire his listeners.  In one of his finest performances, Mr. Williams flexed his well-tuned improvisational muscles and began to tone those connected to his dramatic side.  His “Adrian Cronauer” was an outstanding character, filled with contempt for unfeeling military superiors as well as compassion for battle-hardened soldiers, and war-weary civilians.  Exploring themes that would again come to the surface in the poorly executed and ill-advised Patch Adams, Williams and Good Morning, Vietnam demonstrated the power of laughter in the midst of terror and pain.  And while it played with the idea of Vietnam’s apparent futility and lack of purpose, it never became a movie about that, but rather one man’s fight against authority and his pursuit of love during wartime.  A notable cinematic D.J., and one that provided a lot of comic relief and memorable vignettes, it’s just a shame the picture didn’t do more with the material Mr. Williams provided.

 

 

5.) Steven Wright from Reservoir Dogs

As close to a perfect movie as you’ll get outside of The Godfather or Jaws, Reservoir Dogs is that most rare of commodities: a film that entertains, inspires and dazzles all at once.  “Dazzle” is hauled out here because that is precisely the sensation this author gets every time Reservoir Dogs rolls, for it did so much with so very little.  Like a scrap-metal dealer for the film industry, Mr. Tarantino has made a career of taking everything that works in film, and refashioning it into his own creation.  A crime noir film with none of the genre’s expected glitz or budget, this movie reached deep and found what so many movies of the late-80s and early-90s had lost: heart.  Each scene bristled with an undeniable love of cinema, for the dialogue, action, blocking, and cinematography was staged meticulously by a man who clearly cherished every moment of the process.  Though it could have easily veered off into cheese-territory, the movie always balanced perfectly between self-realization and intense commitment to the moment.

 

For example, take the scene near the end of the first act, when Mr. White and Mr. Pink were arguing about the fate of their fallen comrade, Mr. Orange.  Pink had just cast judgment on White for revealing his name after Orange had been shot, to which a reply came sternly and with passion.  “I’m trying to comfort him, tellin’ him not to worry, he’s gonna be okay, I’m gonna take care of him, and he asked me what my name was.  I mean, the man was dyin’ in my arms.  What the fuck was I supposed to tell him?  ‘Sorry.  I can’t give out that information.  It’s against the rules!  I don’t trust you enough.’  Or maybe I should’ve but I couldn’t.”  In the hands of any other director, the slow move of the camera into the argument while it was coming to its zenith might have been rushed, or filled with cuts and chopped in a way that brought a different flavor or sense of cliché to the moment.  But not in this movie, no.

 

In Reservoir Dogs, the tone and pacing of the scene was nailed with undeniable perfection, and in the rest of the picture, the drama unfolded in a similar manner.  A perfect film both for what it was and what it gave the cinematic community, this movie changed your humble author’s life, and showed a young adolescent what cinema could deliver without big-name actors, special effects, or catchy gimmicks.  Oh, yeah: DJ’s.  This movie sported Steven Wright as the off-screen disc jockey, and he and the music totally fucking ruled.  Like a cherry atop the sundae, his deadpan delivery in conjunction with the music each of the homicidal thieves seemed to enjoy added a unique flavor to a universe the world would quickly come to know as distinctly “Tarantino.”  But we digress, for if we’re going to talk about D.J.’s and directorial debut’s, we’ve got to make room for…

 

 

4.) Clint Eastwood from Play Misty For Me

If this isn’t one of the scariest, most original suspense thrillers ever made, then I’m a fucking astronaut.  And I’m here to tell you: I ain’t no damn space jockey.  Before Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, the festering sore that was Swim Fan, or even Misery, this little gem was out there, scaring the shit out of men who had previously assumed they were in complete control of their respective johnsons.  Eastwood turned in one hell of a freshman effort in 1971, and impressed upon many a young gent the dangers that surround thoughtless flirtations with un-medicated women.  Clint directed this one and played radio D.J. “Dave Garver,” your classic California everyman with style to spare and a head of hair that wouldn’t quit.  Long story short, he started getting a mess of attention from a loyal listener, her odd obsession with Erroll Garner’s “Misty” probably the first clear sign that she didn’t have all her rocks in one bag.  After some subtle flirtations and an ill-advised encounter, Dave had had enough of his #1 fan, “Evelyn,” and tried desperately to drop the hint that she could make her way to the curb any time she pleased.

 

Crazy nut-bag that she was, Evelyn didn’t quite get the memo, in fact, she probably chewed the damn thing up into a ball of soggy pulp before tucking horns back beneath her reptilian scalp and consuming a puppy.  Watching the film, one got the sense that Clint really put a lot of thought into this project, and had spent a great deal of time considering just how he was going to execute each scene.  As a film D.J., he was everything one might hope for: smooth, musically knowledgeable, obviously captivating, and with enough professional clout to keep his job despite obsessed fans tying up his phone lines.  As a first-time director, however, Clint truly showed his quality, each set-up clearly planned out, the performances therein perfectly executed.  It’s said that Eastwood has a special talent for putting his actors at ease when on the set, something that is clear if one takes the time to re-watch this movie, and peer through the perfectly presented tension unfolding throughout each scene.  His character was magnetic without coming off as cheesy, and to take only the fact that he had a psychotic fan, you have to figure that as a D.J., he was doing something right.  Yet when it comes to curiously devoted listeners/followers/disciples, how could we pass up on…?

 

 

3.) Howard Stern from Private Parts

Say what you want about the guy, what with his unstoppable ego, crude humor, comedic aggression, and unapologetic bad taste: Howard Stern is one cool cat.  Nobody lives the take-no-prisoners lifestyle like Stern, for if this guy knows but one thing, it’s how to play by his own rules, burn his opposition, and piss loudly upon the ashes.  When this movie came out, your humble author was still in high school, something that was perfect for a burgeoning mind at the time, for Howard’s humor finds a cozy home in the immature recesses of the male teenage brain.  What is most important to a boy between the ages of 13-17 finds a voice in this man’s work, for nobody does sluts, fecal humor, and defiant rebellion like Howard Stern.  Successful because he never compromised and always kept pushing, he is exactly what a teenager aspires towards when looking to the future and an optimistic destiny free of parents, teachers, and sexual awkwardness.  Simply put, though he was as ugly (if not uglier) than you are, with just as much going for him as any average suburban kid, he pushed through the hard times, made his own rules, and came out on top despite everybody in the world telling him he was crazy.

 

What teenager wouldn’t throw down everything so they could be just like this guy?  At his peak, he was rocking with AC/DC, beating back porn star admirers with a stick, and basking in the admiration of millions of devoted fans who wanted nothing more than to listen quietly to everything he had to say.  Authority figures feared him and those that hated the guy at least knew better than to get in his way.  And this was all from a dude on the radio who didn’t even really play music, but rather sat around for roughly four hours, sharing with the world any and everything that came into his head.  This is all aside from the fact that the guy single-handedly changed the format of radio broadcasting, setting a standard which countless hacks have tried (mostly in vain) to imitate these last thirty years.  A true pioneer and an important part of this author’s youth, Mr. Stern deserves all the deference a lowly top 10 website can offer.

 

 

2.) Christian Slater from Pump Up the Volume – 

It wasn’t until this list began to form in earnest that your humble author began to realize how many D.J.-related movies formed into what would become the cinematic foundation of an entire life.  Pump Up the Volume is yet another film that provided the impetus behind what would eventually solidify into a fairly reliable opinion codification as it concerned movies.  If the movie was about believing in one’s self and overcoming the odds, about persevering over evil or a world that said you weren’t good enough, then a young Warren Cantrell was probably all over that shit.  More than anything else, though, if those themes were combined with a plot-line about a kid who wasn’t popular at school yet was a titan within the confines of his own bedroom at home, then, well…you get the idea.  In this movie, Mark (Christian Slater), was shy (especially around girls), didn’t quite know how to express himself in social settings, and was adrift in his own aspirations.  Void of a purpose and stuck in a decade without some great cause, movement, or crusade, Mark was lost in the early 1990s with nothing but his loneliness and awkward demeanor to keep him company.

 

That was until he locked the door to his room at night, however, and fired up his pirate radio station.  The lone source of dissent in a community choked by oppressive school administrators and parents who couldn’t understand why the kids weren’t excited about life, it was Mark who was the voice he claimed to be waiting for: the prompt his community and generation were thirsty for.  He played banned records kids in suburban Arizona hadn’t even heard of and spoke with such vociferous filth that all passing had but one choice: to listen.  Like Mr. Stern, Mark’s on-air persona, “Happy Harry Hard-on” often enticed with little more than the promise of wondering what might come next, yet to stifled minds wrapped taut in the straps of adolescent purgatory, this was enough.  Faced with jail time if he continued his rebellious attack on the local school system, Happy Harry jumped into the abyss, and sacrificed his anonymity and freedom so that his listeners might hold out hope for a pure symbol for their generation.  Untainted by compromise or ulterior motives, Mark’s rebellion was fought for the most noble of causes: to set his listeners free.  For more on this, we ought to have a look at…

 

 

1.) Tim Robbins from The Shawshank Redemption

It’s hard for me to do any kind of write-up about this movie, as it is a piece of work that means as much to me as anything the world of music, art, or literature have presented in my short life.  The Shawshank Redemption is as powerful a presence in my life as Beethoven’s 9th, Van Gough’s combined life works, or any number of books by Hemingway, Steinbeck, or Kerouac.  While this movie not might go down as the seminal creative expression of my generation as is the case with the aforementioned artists, to me it stands astride them all, and deserves such lofty praise.  Suffice it to say that this is my favorite movie of all time, and has been since I had the presence of mind to begin formulating such serious distinctions (see my explanation for why it is my favorite movie of all time by clicking that preceding link).  Mr. Darabont’s picture speaks for itself, but if forced to explain, I might mention the slow reveal of the prison’s grounds during the opening arrival scene: the take tied perfectly into Mr. Newman’s oppressive score vibrating subtly beneath a lurching pass over Shawshank’s castle-like walls.  I might point to Mr. Morgan Freeman’s soft delivery of narration throughout the picture, and the words spoken from a script which almost seems to seep through the screen and into one’s soul.  There’s not a wasted shot or word in the picture, every frame that was presented as meticulously crafted as one of Andy’s chess pieces.

 

Perhaps the most striking scene came after Andy had finally received his library donation.  Well aware that he hadn’t the authority to do so, that he’d be punished severely if he tried, Andy took it upon himself to give the inmates a taste of pure beauty, playing the letter duet from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.  Proving that beauty had the capacity to exist in any place, be it the darkest corners of a vile prison, or simply the walls surrounding one’s own heart, Andy played D.J. for a few minutes.  Quickly busted and given the opportunity to stop the demonstration, to stifle a ray of hope if only for an extra thirty seconds, Andy proved that there was a chance for those men, that some authority existed in their lives, even if they had forgotten where to look.  As a D.J., Andy performed the highest service possible for the occupation: he inspired optimism in a place where none remained, and shared a beauty many at Shawshank did not know existed.  The most magnificent scene in maybe the greatest movie ever made, it’s hard to argue against Andy’s place at the top of this list, for never has a D.J. done so much with so little air time.

 

 

Copyright Warren J. Cantrell – All rights Reserved

 

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4 Comments for this entry

  • Skot

    Common mistake in #5: it’s a cherry “sundae.”

  • Wayne Swab

    You’re fucking insane not dropping in the DJ from The Warriors. She spun badass tunes, gave important updates, was the Greek chorus and had a sexy ass voice. Often immitated, never duplicated. And until Scarlett Johannson does a DJ stint completely in the nude, the Warriors DJ will always be the sexiest bitch in the room.

  • Sara Huey

    Ditto above, and what about Sam Jackson in DO THE RIGHT THING? Shocking omission.

    Hi, Warren. :-) Just found you on Twitter, reading back posts of 10rant now. Hope you’re well!

  • Warren Cantrell

    Hi Sara!! Thanks so much for reading!! As for Do the Right Thing, Spike and I aren’t on good terms…the man gets no positive love from me ;P

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