From AM to FM to XM, pirate, network or syndication, the radio DJ of film yore is a righteous multitasker. They can make a band(width) and break a heart, fight The Man and rally fans. A disembodied construct of charisma and catchphrase, their realm hums with a certain romance, an intimacy. Callers give their first name; listeners must bend the antenna just so, get the needle at justtheright position on the illuminated dial or resign themselves to an evening of static. And—hooray for tropes!—the DJ also functions in classical, Shakespearean and/or psychoanalysis-begging fashion: Greek chorus, conscience, court jester, prophet, ego, id, etc. Sometimes they play cupid—even Cyrano de Bergerac, in the case of The Truth About Cats & Dogs’ Abby (Janeane Garofalo). They even play a song or two.
So tune in, put the headset on, turn the volume up. A pre-podcast, pre-mobile app history lesson is on the flip side of a word from our sponsor. In selecting the 11 (yes, 11) titles that follow, we’ve ruled out documentaries like Scratch and Modulations. We omitted the club DJs and turntable maestros of Hustle & Flow, It’s All Gone, Pete Tong and the House Party movies. A curious pair of Cleavon Little-starring flicks, the aforementioned FM and road movie Vanishing Point, didn’t quite pass muster. (We also nixed the witch/radio host in Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem because, for starters, it lifts shamelessly from No. 11’s Stevie Wayne.) And sorry, Airheads fans, close, but no Buscemi.
To kick things off, lend an ear to another DJ who didn’t quite make the cut, so to speak: the unnamed voice of K-BILLY radio (Steven Wright) from Reservoir Dogs (1992). Lord knows, that Marvin Nash fella couldn’t.
11. John Carpenter’s The Fog (1980)
DJ: Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau)
Horror royalty Adrienne Barbeau (Creep Show, Swamp Thing, Someone’s Watching Me) makes her feature film debut as a witching hour DJ in a sleepy fishing town on the California coast. Modeled after influential radio personality Alison Steele, aka the Nightbird, Barbeau’s Stevie Wayne cautions listeners of a murderous mist (apparently that’s a thing) that brings with it vengeance for a 100-year-old sin. Barbeau—then married to the film’s eponymous writer-director—isn’t the only scream queen here: Jamie Lee Curtis makes her second appearance in a Carpenter movie, just two years after her breakthrough in the original Halloween, alongside her mother, Janet Leigh, not to mention Hal Holbrook and John Houseman. As far as typically slow-moving meteorological conditions go, this is pretty scary stuff, heavy on mood and relatively light on gore, with Barbeau’s smokey-voiced forecaster upping the atmospheric ante. (Selma Blair stepped into the booth for a 2005 remake.)
10. Pontypool (2008)
DJ: Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie)
The power of the DJ gets super meta in largely bloodless, verbal thriller Pontypool, wherein the spoken word infects residents of a small Ontario enclave, reducing them to babbling zombies. On a blizzard-stricken Valentine’s Day morning, leather blazer and black cowboy hat-wearing host Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) swigs scotch, talks seasonal affective disorder and antagonizes his producer with his blowhard antics—that is, until he starts to believe a traffic reporter whose field accounts grow increasingly odd. It seems area citizens have begun repeating random words and phrases, followed by an appetite for something less … rhetorical. The semantic fright mounts as the DJ, now quarantined in a church-turned-radio station, attempts to reverse the toxic effect of language by changing its meaning—“Do not translate this message,” he echoes in disbelief after the fact. Also produced as a radio play (another nod to Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds”), Pontypool is a tight little mindscrew, led by McHattie’s dynamic performance and a cold yet visceral style that adds to the dread.
9. Private Parts (1997)
DJ: Howard Stern as himself
were omitted from this list, so including the autobiographical fictionalization (or is that fictionalized autobiography?) of the perennial shock jock’s rise to fame blurs lines, sure. But if ever there were an instance of a person portraying a persona, it’s self-anointed “King of All Media” Stern playing himself here, almost a decade before he made another ballsy, pioneering move by jumping from the land-based dial to Sirius Satellite. What is most pleasantly surprising, though, is the sincerity and heart director Betty Thomas coaxes out of her leading man, as offensive as he is self-deprecating. With Stern decked in a barrage of laughable wigs, and wielding an arsenal of faux on-air voices as he discovers his own, the film shows what a grind the booth can be: a succession of call letters, timestamps, temperatures and other sundry tedium.
The pièce de résistance comes about an hour and 17 minutes in—a perfect storm of what one can and cannot say, a Carlin-esque situation that baits the FCC and other higher-ups, and an ace example of the characters in play on any radio broadcast. Private Parts lays bare the DJ at his best—and, some will argue, Stern at his worst: profane, divisive, sophomoric, inimitably listenable. Stern’s real-life stable of talk-show sidekicks (Robin Quivers, with whom his relationship grows rather organically; Jackie Martling; and Gary “Baba Booey” Dell’Abate, all playing themselves) and dramatized nemeses (Paul Giamatti, as an old station boss nicknamed “Pig Vomit”) crank maximum wattage out of what is essentially an underdog story, one that appealed to a much larger moviegoing audience than Stern’s zealous fan base.
8. Pirate Radio (2009)
DJs: The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Gavin (Rhys Ifans), Bob (Ralph Brown), Simon (Chris O’Dowd), Carl (Tom Sturridge)
For the sheer volume of onscreen on-air talent alone, this enjoyable if slight farce cannot be denied. Writer-director Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Notting Hill) sets his ensemble just outside U.K. territorial waters—and at the apex of ’60s rock ’n’ roll—for a 24/7 show forbidden by the crusty old BBC. Based on the real-life Radio Caroline, the motley crew collectively known as Radio Rock serve months-long tours of transmission during which they drink, carouse and, oh yeah, deliver Dusty Springfield, The Who and The Beach Boys to mainland earholes.
The stir-crazy sketch antics are amusing enough—the flick was hacked significantly between its U.K. and U.S. theatrical releases, and it shows—and the cast is top-notch in its good-natured, too-clean tomfoolery. Curtis puts the “broad” in broadcast, right down to Kenneth Branagh as a mustache-twirling Establishment dolt and Emma Thompson as wary mum to the the youngest DJ on “The Boat That Rocked” (the film’s original title). Nonstop music and a droll roster of radio outlaws, led by station owner Bill Nighy, buoy an otherwise unfortunate mess. It hardly matters that the late Hoffman basically recycles his Almost Famous bluster as a Yank called the Count who, in another Carlin-esque scene, debates “a word too far … one tiny little ‘fuck.’”
7. Play Misty for Me (1971)
DJ: Dave Garver (Clint Eastwood)
Decades before he was the crotchety old man of Gran Torino, Clint Eastwood—in his directorial debut—was the crotchety young man of radio. The night DJ at a station in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California (where Eastwood would later serve as mayor), his Dave Garver is as cool on the air—think: poetry readings—as he is off. (Peep those era-appropriate sideburns that arrive a few minutes before the rest of him.) Garver’s swinging bachelor cashes in on his local popularity at the bar when he’s not fielding the (not-so) occasional song request. Jessica Walter, now known best as the matriarch of Arrested Development and Archer, co-stars as Evelyn, the uncorked listener who will not be ignored. Yep, Play Misty for Me is a direct and obvious antecedent of Fatal Attraction, and a better film.
As disc jockeys go, Eastwood’s suede-and-sandpaper voice is tailor-made for radio, especially jazz—a genre the multi-hyphenate has returned to throughout his career; he even staged the film around the time of the 1970 Monterey Jazz Festival, where he shot live concert scenes. A stylish, spare, unnerving thriller, Play Misty for Me builds like a tight musical composition—arguably displaying an economy lost in its director’s behind-the-camera work of late.
6. Talk to Me (2007)
DJ: Ralph “Petey” Greene (Don Cheadle)
Don Cheadle is marvelous in Kasi Lemmons’ crowd-pleaser of a biopic, starring as an ex-con-turned-DJ and activist in 1960s Washington, D.C. The story of Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene opens with his polarizing prison broadcast, overheard by visiting radio exec Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor, expert as the straight man to Cheadle’s flamboyant lead). As shrewd as he is verbose, Greene soon finagles his way out of jail and onto public airwaves, with Hughes as his makeshift babysitter and Martin Sheen’s station owner as his exasperated boss. Talk to Me chronicles this messenger of the streets—or “P-Town” as it becomes known—throughout the changing D.C. landscape and accompanying racial politics, particularly Vietnam and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Greene drinks, he womanizes, he sends the FCC into fits with his real talk—an early smackdown of Motown’s Berry Gordy is the least of WOL-AM’s troubles, even for a station that bills itself as the new sound of soul.
The music featured is expectedly funky, from classic R&B and Stax to Terence Blanchard’s score; Cheadle’s DJ shares the hope that the Sam Cooke recording, “A Change is Gonna Come,” once gave him—“Now that I’m out,” he says, “I still need that.” Outrageous and fearless, Greene eventually becomes a stand-up comic and Emmy-winning TV show host. The seriocomic film takes heartwarming liberties with the facts and largely glosses over his considerable work as a social reformer. But the guts of Greene’s appeal is still here, at its crux his unwavering insistence upon the truth, “because that’s all I know,” he shrugs. “Being a DJ is the only thing I’m good at that doesn’t involve me breaking the law.”