After a somewhat linear, pratical first act, FM begins to meander through a series of vingettes. Occasionally these end in a fade to black, usually when there’s supposed to be some deep meaning to the scene, but occasionally just when it’s time to move an interminate period into the future. A day or two. Or a week. It’s never really clear, which is fine, since there’s not much internal reality to the film.
FM is about the highest rated radio station in Los Angeles. Only, they’re not highest rated because they’re a bunch of corporate squares, they’re highest rated because they’re a bunch of Hollywoodized hippies. Station manager and morning disc jockey Michael Brandon never gets to work on time, if the opening titles are to be believed, when he’s driving from home to work in approximately six minutes. In L.A. traffic. Brandon’s got long, shaggish hair and a beard and sometimes wears a cowboy hat. He doesn’t believe in commercials, he believes in the music.
Then there’s Martin Mull. He’s the sweet talker lothario DJ who has way too high an opinion of himself. He actually gets one of the film’s better story arcs, culiminating in the most creative direction director Alonzo does in the entire film. Cleavon Little is the other sweet talker lothario DJ who has just the right opinion of himself. He doesn’t get anything to do in the movie, except make the station seem hip for having a black guy. Eileen Brennan is the third of the successful DJs. She’s tired with the life. She has the worst story arc; of all the underutilized actors in the film, Brennan is most underutilized. Ezra Sacks’s script doesn’t have much in the way of character depth–calling the parts caricatures is a tad complementary–so it’s up to the actor and Alonzo to make the most of the performances.
Mull can kind of get away with it, but Brennan has less to do than Jay Fenichel, who’s the tech guy who wants to be DJ.
There’s also Alex Karras, who’s sort of around to give a sense of linearity, as well as giving Brandon some character development. Not enough because Sacks doesn’t do anything with Karras. And, frankly, when Karras takes a back seat to Cassie Yates, who at least is active and supposedly has a on-again-off-again with Brandon (though they have zero chemistry), it’s a fine enough change. Yates isn’t annoying in the little transition scenes between Sacks’s attempts at vingettes. Karras, however, does get annoying.
Tom Tarpey is okay as the company stooge who should be a foil for Brandon, except he disappears for too long somewhere in the second act. The second act is also when FM drops in a three song set from Linda Rondstadt, which Alonzo doesn’t direct any better than the rest of the film so it’s not even compelling.
Oh, and James Keach’s pothead Army lieutenant is an exceptional fail in everywhere–Keach’s performance, Sacks’s writing, Alonzo’s direction.
When the film finally does get to the third act, which basically just resolves stuff introduced in the first ten minutes… well, FM goes from being a genial disappointment to a complete waste of time. It doesn’t help Alonzo is wholly unqualified for everything the film needs him to do. And whoever thought Panavision was a good idea was very wrong. Alonzo can never find anything to fill the side of a frame in his one shots. He also can’t direct group shots, which is a problem since much of the film is the cast standing or sitting around the radio station.
Lawrence G. Paull’s production design isn’t bad though, even if the station is unbelievable as a successful radio station, Hollywood hippies or not. And David Myers’s photography is passable. It’s not his fault Alonzo doesn’t know how to compose a shot.
FM doesn’t run much over a 100 minutes, yet it begins to drag once it’s clear it’s not really going anywhere with the cast. Mull’s comic relief. Brennan’s around to give it respectably. Yates is supposed to give it spunk, Little color, Brandon heartthrob. As it does start to finish up, the film manages to drain all its enthusiasm. It can’t end fast enough; it’s already burned through the tepid goodwill it’s created and is just wasting everyone’s time.
FM doesn’t even end up deserving a turn your dial joke.
Directed by John A. Alonzo; written by Ezra Sacks; director of photography, David Myers; edited by William C. Carruth and Jeff Gourson; music by Steely Dan; production designer, Lawrence G. Paull; produced by Rand Holston; released by Universal Pictures.
Starring Michael Brandon (Jeff Dugan), Martin Mull (Eric Swan), Cassie Yates (Laura Coe), Eileen Brennan (Mother), Tom Tarpey (Regis Lamar), Cleavon Little (Prince), Jay Fenichel (Bobby Douglas), Roberta Wallach (Shari Smith), Janet Brandt (Alice), Alex Karras (Doc Holiday), and James Keach (Lt. Reach).