During the 70s and early 80s, radio was a common period effect in American cinema. Directors frequently used radio to anchor the Depression-era dramas that proliferated during these years, presenting it as a nostalgia effect with no real presence in the present. That all started to change in the wake of DJ culture, however, and by the early 90s the radio waves were hip enough to be a viable venue for teenage drama. The seminal radio film from this era was Pump Up the Volume, which presented the DJ as a forerunner of the internet celebrity, or even the podcaster, but Michael Lehmann’s Airheads explores the same territory in an equally original way. The film opens by introducing us to the Lone Rangers, an LA rock outfit comprised of Chazz (Brendan Fraser) on lead guitar and vocals, Rex (Steve Buscemi) on bass, and Pip (Adam Sandler) on drums. We follow the Rangers through various unsuccessful attempts to get a gig, until a combination of strategy and chance propels them into the stunt that drives the film – take a radio station hostage until they’re offered a major label contract.
Before we even get to that point, however, Lehmann outlines two very distinct spaces to get the film underway. On the one hand, we have the cold, gleaming, inhuman edifices of Los Angeles, which is presented here, in the early 90s, at the very peak of its postmodern revival. This urban style tends to be most pronounced around the corporate rock world, which we glimpse in the opening scene, when Chazz walks straight into a major label and asks for a contract. On the other hand, we have spaces filled with clutter, spaces that are too unruly to conform to the sleek sightlines and tasteful minimalism of corporate LA. We first glimpse this kind of space when Pip’s girlfriend kicks him out their apartment, and unloads all his possessions onto the street below, effectively decluttering him from her life, as a sea of videos, CDs, collectibles and other arcana tumbles onto the sidewalk. From there, Lehmann cuts to the supermarket where Rex works, which is packed to the brim with consumer objects, and to Rex’s own home, which outdoes both Pip and the market in terms of clutter, since it appears to be hoarded with every single object he has ever owned, valued, used or purchased.
In the compressed first act of the film, Lehmann moves between these two types of spaces quite fluidly, usually by emphasising elevated structures and locations, which situate the action at the same level as the radio antennae that gaze out across Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. As we move between spaces that appear to repel normal human experience, and spaces that are cluttered with normal human experience, the Lone Rangers seem to be searching for a line of flight from Los Angeles itself – or a way to reimagine its austere cityscape and sprawling suburbs as a place where live music can flourish in the same way as in a more conventional metropolis. Getting their music to the masses means nothing less than a reconfiguration of Los Angeles itself, although their sense of this shift remains quite inchoate until they stumble upon the one site in the film that fuses these two spatial schemes.
This space is Rebel Radio, a “pirate radio” station that also features a trio of musical personalities – Ian (Joe Mantegna), who hosts the program, Milo (Michael McKean), the manager and Doug (Michael Richards), the owner. On the one hand, Rebel Radio takes all the cluttered spaces of the film to their logical conclusion, since it’s the most cluttered, but also transforms clutter into a literal exercise in culture jamming. Surrounded by arcana from the hardest and hottest rock bands, Ian is totally uncompromising in the music he blasts out at the city, garnering himself a reputation as the most disruptive DJ in Los Angeles. On the other hand, Rebel Radio is situated in the heart of the Bunker Hill district, which became the most austere and postmodern precinct in Los Angeles after its original working-class residents were expelled in the 40s and 50s. As a result, there’s a profound mismatch between the interior and exterior of the Rebel Radio station – a mistmatch that draws in the Lone Rangers, whose subsequent siege of the station turns into a way of trying to remake LA in their own image.
The Lone Rangers’ siege can therefore be understood as involving three distinct levels. First, and most immediately, they’re holding the station hostage to secure themselves a record seal. Second, they’re trying to break the corporate deadlock on rock, and so square the circle between radio and live music. Finally, and most profoundly, they’re fighting against the corporatisation of space that, from their vantage point, mitigates against a musical underground in Los Angeles. Breaking into this pirate radio station thus becomes the ultimate pirate gesture, especially when the siege uncovers a terrifying fact – that Milo, the station manager, is on the verge of rebranding Rebel Radio as a soft rock platform called “The Rain.” Throughout all of these sequences, the Rebel Radio precinct is indebted to the depiction of Nakatomi Plaza in Die Hard, also situated in the Bunker Hill district, even if the clutter inside is more original and specific to this film.
During this first part of the siege, the comedy tends to stem from the stand-off between two generations of comedians – McKean, Richards and Mantegna as the elder statesmen, and Sandler, Fraser and Buscemi as the up-and-comers. All three of these younger players would go on to have very different comic styles, which means that Airheads is remarkably elastic in its ability to accommodate a range of comic styles too, from the most satirical to the most slaspstick. Only Sandler remains muted, since his particular style tends to mitigate against repartee, meaning it can’t ever really exist in a wider comic ecosystem making this the first and last time he would ever be top-billed in a mainstream comedy outside of Happy Madison.
For all their individual differences, however, the Lone Rangers initially share one basic assumption – that live music is simply better than recorded music – but this quickly vanishes over the course of the siege. Initially, they try to play their demo tape through the radio station, but they’ve brought the wrong format cassette, meaning that the radio machine eats it up and then sets it alight. Yet this adds a vibrant edge to the recording, and opens up the interface with the city further, as they refuse to even consider ending the siege until a police officer brings them their original demo cassette, which is apparently with Pip’s ex-girlfriend Meanwhile, the entire siege is broadcast live, drawing in crowds around the radio station who combine live fandom with radio fandom to participate in a media event that is bigger than the sum of both parts. While the growing crowd of onlookers have gathered in person, they’re still listening to the siege through their boom boxes, creating a hyperreal event that is both real and mediated, and produces waves of reverberation and feedback that draw others in as well. Rather than sequester off the building, as occurs in so many siege films, the Rangers use it to amplify this feedback, always coming to the threshold of the studio and retreating again.
This makes the film’s pacing ebb and flow like escalating feedback too, as Lehmann takes us through centrifugal and centripetal plot devices that alternately bring the city deep into the station and propel the station out to the most far-flung corners of the city. In one especially poetic sequence, we follow Doug, the station owner, as he hides in increasingly obscure recesses in the station building, while Officer Wilson, a hostage negotiator played by Chris Farley, wanders the city in search of the band’s elusive demo tape. So sprawling do these two trajectories become that they almost dissociate from the main plot – Doug’s journey could almost be a Kramer subplot from Seinfeld, especially since he doesn’t interact with anyone until the final scene, while Wilson’s stand-off in a nightclub feels like a dress rehearsal for the third act of Tommy Boy, when Farley plays a security guard who’s placed in a similar situation.
Yet the magic of Airheads is that these two subplots never quite dissociate from the sprawl that the Lone Rangers are creating – a sprawl that’s designed to rival the legendary Los Angeles sprawl and so enable them to recover this lost cassette. The LA sprawl is often framed in terms of the city’s highways and driving culture, and so we first glimpse this precious tape lying precariously in the middle of the road, as car after car of rockers nearly drive over it on their way to the radio station, with each new set of wheels almost flattening it into the city’s automotive substrate for good. In order to get it back, the Lone Rangers have to harness the power of the highways, which paradoxically create clutter, through traffic jams, as much as they disperse it, through high-speed transit. During the second half of the film, then, the Rangers try to recreate the experience of traffic jams within the studio, by demanding a series of random items from the negotiators so that they can plead insanity later, including a football helmet full of cottage cheese, an oversized baby bottle, and twenty-six copies of Moby Dick.
As these items are brought in by a variety of vehicles, they quickly exceed the clutter capacity of the radio station, creating an hoc barricade that prevents these same vehicles getting in or out. Traffic jams become an incentive for culture jamming, which becomes a literal exercise in clutter, as the Lone Rangers draw on the city’s gridlock to try and break the deadlock hanging over the music industry. For all its doofus humour, then, Airheads forms part of a long Hollywood tradition of trying – somewhat anxiously – to imagine the next big media event beyond cinema, the “big one” that might topple cinema from the inside out, and force us to think Hollywood afresh. Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole was one of the progenitors of this kind of cinema, trying to imagine the inchoate world of television in the same way that Airheads tries to imagine a digital culture that is somehow capable of being real and mediated at the same time – a new kind of hyperreality that travels through the ether in the same manner as radio, but is quite distinct from radio as well, despite several baseline similarities.
This desire to incorporate new media into the film’s orbit is so powerful that the act of watching the film fees part of the same process. Midway through, the Lone Rangers get a call at the station from Beavis and Butthead, as if their command of the slippery space between real and mediated experience, and between corporate and cluttered Los Angeles, has allowed fictional characters to also tune in onto their broadcast. Conversely, our experience, as an audience, of this fictional broadcast feels peculiarly embedded in the address of the film itself, which perhaps explains why Airheads feels like such a great “hang film,” since it’s a media event in and of itself, a media event resilient enough to survive the changes in cinema that succeeded it – still resonant on television a year later, on DVD a decade later, or on streaming servies twenty years later. It has a similar resonance to This is Spinal Tap – the casting of McKean can’t be accidental – but in some ways Lehmann goes beyond Christopher Guest in his ambition here, especially in his depictions of the media spectacle surrounding rock music.
Of course, the more ambitious and emergent this media event becomes, the harder it is for Lehmann to end it – but he comes up with a great double twist. First, it seems like the siege will segue naturally into a live concert, as a record executive arrives at the station, offers the Lone Rangers a contract, and airlifts a giant stage into a Bunker Hill. Yet Lehman also understands that mere “live” music would be an anticlimax now, since the film has focused for the last half hour on a hyperreal fusion of real and recorded music that’s considerably more titillating than the traditional concert experience. For an audience who have spent the film both watching the siege unfold live and simultaneously listening to it on their boom boxes, a regular live performance can only be a comedown. In a second twist, then, the Lone Rangers are faced with one final crisis of simulation, as their new manager instructs them to lipsync so that he can use the Bunker Hill backdrop to make this their first ever music video.
At the very moment at which the Lone Rangers seem to have broken into the “reality” of live music, they find their media event folded back into the corporate structures and austere Bunker Hill landscape that it was trying to resist. In the face of this postmodern image regime, which finally overtakes them here, all they can offer is the same creative destruction, as they destroy their instruments and equipment on stage, replacing music with the same reverberating feedback that signalled their hyperreal communion with their fans in their first place. This destruction produces their first platinum album, but not in a conventional way, since a brief epilogue tells us that they all went to prison for six months, where they followed Johnny Cash’s stints at San Quentin and Folsom with their own “Live in Prison.” The difference is that Cash was only visiting prison, whereas they’re imprisoned, and that Cash worked at a time when “live” music still had some vestige of authenticity that has been totally co-opted by the image machine imprisoning the Rangers now. Their own hope is to find a new reality, a hyperreality, that fuses live and mediated music in the same way as their siege, and the film ends poised on the preicipice of that possibility, restless even with the language of music video, gesturing towards a digital dissemination and aesthetic that was inchoate at the time.