Private Parts (1997)

D: Betty Thomas
S: Howard Stern, Robin Quivers, Fred Norris

Entertaining if self-serving biography of radio superstar Howard Stern, whose confrontational sense of humour and disarming honesty took him from college geek to hero of the city of New York, all the while living a relatively normal personal life which contrasted with his on-air shenanigans. Though the film evades the more serious social and moral questions that the entire 'shock-jock' phenomenon raises (explored in Eric Bogosian's play Talk Radio, filmed by Oliver Stone in 1988), director Betty Thomas (The Brady Bunch Movie) leaves little time for them amid the depiction of some of the more famous Stern hijinks and generally warm mixture of drama and comedy. She is aided by a game cast of real-life radio personalities portraying themselves, including Stern, who is as commanding a screen personality as he is on radio.

From its opening scenes, the film is concerned with the schizm between appearance and reality. It establishes an opposition between the supremely confident on-air persona of Howard Stern and the all-too-human man who created it. It winningly details his early career and the beginning of his romance with Mary McCormack, portraying Stern's wife Alison (who actually has a brief cameo as a switchboard operator). Stern has fun playing himself at various stages, yet always sustains a sense of the paradoxes at the centre of his character. It opens with a nice bit of contradiction as he makes a dramatic entrance to an awards ceremony as the character Fartman. Suspended from wires and making as much of a noisy spectacle of himself as possible, Stern is first heard doubting his own sanity and voicing concerns for his personal safety. This note is sustained throughout, though we do get to see the gradual emergence of a more self-confident personality, convinced of the value of what he's attempting to do to radio (though not everyone would agree, of course), backed by his love for and the not entirely unwavering support of his wife.

The People vs. Larry Flynt it is not, but though Stern lends himself to this kind of treatment, in this case anyway, the makers have opted for something altogether more lightweight. It is very much Stern's interpretation of events, and ultimately casts him in the role of sympathetic hero, but then where is the harm in hearing his side of it, especially when it is done so well? It is certainly the most satisfying film about radio since Good Morning Vietnam, and perhaps, in a sense, avoiding the real-world issues raised by Stern's antics makes it more coherent and ultimately watchable than the Levinson piece, where comedy and political concerns were uncomfortably grafted together in an attempt to 'broaden' debate.

Thomas demonstrated a gift for absurdist satire with The Brady Bunch Movie. Though on the whole this film is more conventional in style, she injects a certain level of surrealist parody with the inclusion of 'documentary' chapter headings filmed in various locales and a credit-sequence dig at the ABC exec who vowed to 'tame' the demon of the airwaves (played with lovely arrogant yet vulnerable villany by Paul Giamatti). It is well paced, well judged, and maintains a good balance of elements to keep even (or perhaps especially) non-devotees intrigued. Again, there is a sense of disconnectedness from social reality (or, indeed, any kind of reality, in a way), which ultimately limits the level to which one can trust its point of view, but on the whole it is very clearly marked as a personal perspective from Stern's autobiography, so why quibble?

Stern fans will eat it up. Though its scenes of shock and outrage are really pretty tame by comparison with some of the things the show has done or been responsible for over the years (the entire 'hoaxer' question is not raised at all), there is much that has already become modern American radio myth and long time listeners will enjoy seeing it restaged on screen. Casual viewers should enjoy it simply on its story elements and strength of performances. It is fast, funny, and often 'outrageous' enough to satisfy punters who have never heard the show (or even heard of it), and it is even interesting enough on its own terms to recommend as an evening's entertainment.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 2000.