Films in which ordinary people one day go publicly crazy, creating in the process a spectacular media event, hold an enduring fascination. In the 1970s Goldie Hawn led the police force on a frantic ride to Texas in Spielberg's The Sugarland Express (1974), and Al Pacino staged a bumbling bank robbery in Dog Day Afternoon (1975). In both stories the media was immediately on the scene to turn them into instant folk heroes, or else to demonise them as lawless anarchists.
In the '80s, the protagonists of this model story change in two significant ways. Firstly, they are usually teenagers. Secondly, they attempt to take hold of the instruments of the media, in order to tell their own story in their own way. In The Legend of Billie Jean (1985), a group of rebel kids on the run shoot video reports for the evening news. In Riders of the Storm (aka The American Way ), disgruntled Vietnam vets (led by Dennis Hopper) run a pirate television station. And in Pump Up the Volume (1990), schoolboy Christian Slater broadcasts a message of youth revolution from the radio gear hidden in his family bedroom.
Airheads continues the radio theme. A Los Angeles station devoted to "rebel radio" in fact contents itself with the same old playlist of classic rock. Even worse, it is about to adopt an 'easy listening' format. But chaos enters through the back door when three young musicians, Chazz (Brendan Fraser), Rex (Steve Buscemi) and Pip (Adam Sandler) burst in on DJ Ian (Joe Mantegna) and demand that he air their home-recorded demo tape.
These three screwy kids call themselves "The Lone Rangers" (a name which becomes a running joke in the film). When their tape auto-destructs after only a few seconds on air, they decide to hold all station staff as hostages. Police and media gather outside the building, and so do an army of kids – lured by the inane live chat of the Rangers, and their playing of cool tracks previously suppressed by the oldies in charge of the airwaves.
Director Michael Lehmann has had a curious career. His debut feature Heathers (1989) was an instant cult success. But the warning signs were flashing from the word go. As his subsequent film Meet the Applegates (1991) demonstrated conclusively, Lehmann is a terminally flip filmmaker. In fact, he fully deserves that dreaded tag postmodern for the simple reason that he appears incapable of investing a positive value in anybody or anything for more than five minutes.
Airheads swings wildly between being a satire and a celebration of youth. Many laughs are had at the expense of these kids who demand to be heard, but have nothing to say. Constantly, however, Lehmann and writer Rich Wilkes try to have it the other way, pitting these supposedly honest teens against the insidious, conniving squares who run the music industry (incarnated with pantomime villainy by Judd Nelson and Michael McKean).
The film goes completely out of control very quickly. In one of the most truly shocking moments of recent popular cinema, the film places a farcical, obese cop in the midst of a decadent nightclub. Just when one expects another hearty round of anti-establishment humour, Lehmann turns the scene into a homage to Eddie Murphy's antics in the 48 Hours films (1982 & 1988) by having this cop tear a ring from the nipple of a typical clubber as he gloats triumphantly. Nice one, Mike.
Characters such as this cop come and go throughout the course of the entire film, usually with no clear comedic or satiric purpose. A fascistic military leader with a savage crewcut – a very typical figure of fun in post-Reagan American cinema – storms about but does little. Michael Richards from Seinfeld spends most his screen time crawling around in air-conditioning vents, except when he is falling over in crudely choreographed bits of slapstick.
Airheads has its moments of sharp humour, and is certainly of gruesome interest to anyone who follows the ways in which pop music and youth culture are represented in mainstream cinema. But it suffers terribly from the convoluted attempt to be simultaneously a sequel to This is Spinal Tap (1984) and a sympathetic ode to teen spirit.
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© Adrian Martin January 1995