Telling the intertwined stories of some employees at a successful FM radio station that has not yet been corrupted by corporate influence, FM will necessarily be hard to relate to for anyone born after, say, 1975. The same station depicted in this film today would be the most "evil" corporate station in town (except for those ruthless Tejano stations!), replete with "zoo crew," local "shock-jock," and all the rest. Certainly the fact that this movie was released in '78 gives it some elements you wouldn't get were it set 30 years later: the unlikely spectacle of Eileen Brennan's backside being ogled by Martin Mull, for example (that's some sexy-ass shit!), or the almost as-unlikely depiction of Alex Karras as a DJ!
The storyline centers on the station fending off corporate (specifically, military) influence in an attempt to remain "true" and "pure" to the listenership it built up by delivering "wild," "free-form" programming: you know, Jimmy Buffett, Linda Ronstadt, Tom Petty all that anarchist music. In tone, it's a lot like Fame, but paced like a good pot buzz: some drama, then a full song, then some more drama. This approach works pretty well until they show three full Linda Ronstadt live performances in a row this kills all momentum. Even in a movie specifically about Linda Ronstadt, three straight Linda Ronstadt songs would be excessive.
The cast is winning, especially Cleavon Little, who seems to have been the Don Cheadle of the 70s (and that doesn't bode well for Don Cheadle), if in fact he was not Don Cheadle's actual father. Martin Mull and Alex Karras both get a chance to play it subdued and against-type. Mull in particular is pretty good until they give his character too much to do.
FM also benefits from some great cameos for music dorks: REO Speedwagon doing an in-store signing at Tower on Sunset! Tom Petty live in the studio! Jimmy Buffett in concert! (I hate to say it, but Buffett kinda won me over with his scene.)
The climax naively conflates anti-corporatization with anti-authoritarianism it's almost as if the aging Boomers realized that they were selling themselves out, and needed one last cinematic fantasy to hold onto before they started opening their retirement accounts. The movie pits the supposedly "rebellious" DJs against their bosses and even the police as though it is the same thing to be dissatisfied with your company as to, like, deliberately break the law.
Though FM is vaguely mad at "suits," it takes out the brunt of its animus on "cops," which is always satisfying to an audience but makes no real sense when the "heroes" of a movie are blatant criminals. Somehow we're expected to root for the DJs even when they turn into radical activists performing clearly illegal actions. What began as a breezy little L.A.-culture film suddenly turns into a riot which is sort of like tacking the ending of Do the Right Thing onto Empire Records. Total fantasy, and not necessary or warranted.
FM would make for an exceptionally interesting remake in the 2000s perhaps a project to bring Paul Thomas Anderson back into focus. I'd love to see the clearly anguished Baby Boomer themes dissected from a post-Boomer perspective one that doesn't believe in either the "evil" of corporations or the "purity" of rebellion. An FM that truly tried to reconcile cultural responsibility with fiscal wisdom would be extremely welcome actually, anything that might help me do that would be extremely welcome.