Stern's Shameless Opportunism: It's All an Act
BY SANDY WELLS
In a scene in his first movie, "Private Parts," Howard Stern's ambition to become a DJ was born during a visit to the studios of WHOM in New York with his father, who worked as an engineer for the Manhattan station. Across the glass from him, in the studio, was "Symphony Sid" throwing a tantrum, smashing records and berating the radio station. With just a few seconds remaining to rein in this out-of-control talent, Stern's father proclaims, in a Moses-like voice, that under powers vested in him by the Federal Communications Commission in Washington, D.C., he must pull himself together and get on with his show. Like a chastised old dog, Sid collects himself and sinks into his seat. Tamed, he brings his lips close to the microphone and, in a mellifluous voice, flawlessly introduces himself and his record show to his New York audience.
Whether that particular episode is based on fact is hard to know, for Stern has proved to be a master at mythologizing himself. But the scene serves to illustrate the main ingredient in his hugely successful radio show: By changing the listener's perspective 180 degrees, he places them behind the scenes where they can hear the master of mayhem express his uncensored "real" self on the air - however outrageously. Stern smashes any pretense of polish and the conventional "professionalism," a style skillfully lampooned by Paul Hecht as the WNBC newscaster, Ross Buckingham. This conventionalism typically stifles such impulses in a broadcaster. Indeed, that cuts to the heart of the Stern controversy - whether the broadcasting medium is to be merely a public service run by business people or should be allowed to evolve into a forum for electronic artistry of another kind, as in the case of Stern, a sort of Henry Miller novel serialized for radio.
People already familiar with Stern's radio show will find that the movie covers mostly familiar territory. There is very little about himself that most of his fans haven't already heard him talk about: his screwed-up childhood and youth; the tortured relationship with his parents; the size of his penis (his wife says he exagerates its smallness); his lusting after women
Mary McCormack plays Alison,
combined with a steadfast loyalty to his wife; his constant whining about the stupidity of other people in radio; the frustrations of his career; and his relationships with his radio "family": newscaster Robin Quivers, producer Gary Dell'Abate, engineer Fred Norris, comedy writer Jackie Martling and sidekick "Stuttering" John Melendez.
What is refreshing is the disciplined and skillful movie-making that has gone into making his story more than blatant exhibitionism on the part of Stern, who is known for vulgar grandstanding and for pushing light-years beyond the limits of good taste. "The King of All Media" has approached this most prestigious of all vehicles for self-expression with great care. Producer Ivan Reitman, screenwriter Len Blum and director Betty Thomas must be credited not only with paring down this prodigious talker with apparently limitless capacity for self-absorption, but also with providing insights into Stern's off-mike character, ones that the "shock jock" may have overlooked himself.
Most perceptive is the depiction of Stern's relationship with his wife, which provides the backbone of the story. Actress Mary McCormack performs with beautiful simplicity and emotional depth, in a nearly thankless role as the loyal wife, Alison. She is seen as the one who stands by him, from his inauspicious beginnings as a DJ in Westchester, New York, his first taste of glory as star morning man on Hartford's WCCC to greatness and national fame in New York City. Although Stern succeeds admirably at playing both sides of himself in an unaffected and appealing way, the scenes with McCormack, an accomplished and gifted actress, give weight to the sometimes painful impact of his career on those closest to him. His loyalty to his fellow DJ and friend Fred Norris - nicely played by himself - and sidekick Robin Quivers - whom he betrays but wins back - give the film a sense of truth.
Miraculously, the movie manages to be more than a mere depiction of a driven, often hapless entertainer. This evolution from mediocre disk jockey to a sensation on New York radio (the movie leaves off at the pinnacle of Stern's career at WNBC, from which he was later fired) becomes a kind of meditation on the idea of celebrity itself. The story is told from the point of view of the star as he finds himself seated beside supermodel Carol Alt - one of his admitted objects of desire - on a plane. During the course of the flight, Stern tells her his life's story. At first repulsed by his appearance and reputation for being a vulgar sexist, she is won over by his vulnerability and charm by the end of flight.
Although Stern acts the role of the brash and inconsiderate opportunist with convincing relish, there is a sense of calculation about the chaos he orchestrates five days a week.
In some ways, Stern embodies the rock 'n' roll persona, sexually frank, anti-establishment, dedicated to smashing all pretensions combined with shameless opportunism and affinity for hype that makes a career in rock possible. (The soundtrack contains some first-rate pop-rock selections.) Of course, Stern doesn't even play rock music on his show anymore. But he's an articulate realization of what a rock personality would be if he, suddenly bereft of drums, guitars and amps, were forced to rely on words without music. Although not a poet, Stern seems to reflect the sensibility of the beat poets, bringing it to a new level of mass acceptance on radio.
His influences aren't acknowledged in the film, but Stern was undoubtedly affected by other radio personalities. Perhaps he heard the rambling monologues of Jean Shepherd on public radio or borrowed ideas from competing "morning zoos" or from New York radio icon Don Imus (who receives an unflattering portrayal by Luke Reilly).While in Washington, Stern put together an album of song parodies, no doubt trying to duplicate the success Rick Dees achieved with "Disco Duck."
Unlike any other film or TV show, "Private Parts" offers an accurate look at the inner workings of a radio station and what it's like being a jock on the air. Stern must be given credit for his blistering portrayal of the fear-driven business people who manage radio. Paul Giamatti's portrayal of the WNBC program director ("Pig Vomit") is a minor comic masterpiece. Stern's life is nothing if it hasn't been about breaking most of the taboos that have hobbled the creativity of broadcasters since it was taken over by the Navy Department in the 1920s.
If successful, this film will help Stern carve a considerable niche as a multi-media phenomenon, perhaps akin to a '90s version of Jack Benny, portraying himself and his cohorts in other situations based on his life. If he continues to make movies, he faces the hazard of becoming more contrived as he exhausts the raw materials provided by his own life. No one can easily predict the career trajectory of this decidedly original personality.