Reviews

Private Parts

3

Force Chris Evans, James Whale and any Motley Crue member into the matter-transference machine used in The Fly, and something Sternish would squirm out the other end.

His style of relentless, occasionally inventive, crassness has propelled him to twisted super-DJ/anti-celeb status in the US. Between his nationally syndicated radio spot and his E! Entertainment TV show, he regularly picks up about 50-60 million listeners/viewers. There's also the best-selling book and now this film - gradually he's living up to his "King Of All Media" boast.

Or, at least, he would if Private Parts - a plodding, self-inflating biopic in which he plays himself - added up to anything more than a flaccid ego-trip with a few good bits. Howard is the socially luckless but big-mouthed geek with (as he freely admits) a small penis, who begins life as the only white kid in an all-black school, and eventually finds work in inane, non-threatening Stepford DJ mode (all time checks and syrupy bonhomie) at a series of tiny Nowhereville regional radio stations. Fired from a country station he detests, he eventually finds success by being himself - saying what he really thinks, discussing his private life on air and pulling together a kooky entourage of regular co-presenters (homely but unshockable newsreader Robin Quivers, laconic sound-effects man Fred Norris and "Stuttering" John Melendez).

Eventually he's hired by giant radio network WNBC, who soon realise they've made a mistake (apparently, they hadn't even heard the show before giving Stern a job). In an attempt to avoid costly contractual argy-bargy, they direct station manager Kenny (nicknamed Pig Vomit by Stern) to make things as difficult for the DJ as possible, and hopefully drive him to quit.

Funny bits: Stern urges a female caller to adjust her radio to full bass/no treble and to straddle the speaker ("Put your private area over the woofer") while he hums, growls and whoops, eventually triggering her orgasm. Later, Pig Vomit issues a rigid document detailing the words Howard can't use on-air (including, inevitably, cock and pussy). Stern immediately sets up a spoof Blankety Blank-style panel-game. ("Blank... willow?"; "Blank... a-doodle doo?")

But, sadly, we only get sporadic flutters of his slippery relationship with wholesome wife Alison - whom he seems to have married because she's the first woman who was ever nice to him, and who puts up with all sorts of on-air abuse. One of the underlying questions posed by the film is how much she can take before she packs her bags, and Stern is obviously aware of that possibility. As he tries to explain, his radio persona is entirely separate from the real him, and she shouldn't judge him by anything he might say on-air. Difficult to believe, yes, and he tests his spouse's saintly patience after she has a miscarriage. At home, they huddle together as he coos reassurances, telling her the tragedy is actually a good thing: it means her body is healthy, because it realised there was a problem with the baby and so rejected it. Then, on his show, he tells listeners he took a Polaroid of the toilet and sent it to his grieving wife's parents: "This is your grandson."

Stern is excellent in this curious role - comfortable, unforced, even braving a self-referential aside on the difficulties of playing himself at other points in his life. ("I know what you're thinking - I look a little old for college. Well, for this movie you have to suspend your disbelief.") But the dad-and-I-never-really-got-on-though-sometimes-we-connected Wonder Years-style voiceover is chafing, and you get a definite sense of being given a more palatable and homogenised version of the crazed on-air persona than his listeners usually get. Only occasionally, like when he allows the loyal Quivers to take the rap and get sacked for something he did (a real-life event), do you feel you're getting a warts-and-all portrait.

The US shock jock phenomenon emerged as a punkish snarl at the banal, hooray-for-everything patter of conventional commercial radio. When Kenny ponders a listener survey, he discovers that those who love and hate Stern endure him for precisely the same reason - to see what he's going to say next. The problem with the film is that if you approach it with the same attitude, you'll be frustrated - on screen he never goes quite far enough to really shock.

Still, at least the "Genius or Wanker?" issue will give you an hour or so's post-picture gabbing in the pub afterwards.

Verdict:

A spirited misfire. Stern is anxious to present himself as a Larry Flynt figure, fighting for his right to say what he likes; but he turns in an adulterated version of himself, self-consciously walking the line between going too far and not going far enough. Director Betty Thomas does well enough, but it would have worked much better as a When We Were Kings cut-and-paste documentary.

Film Details

  • 18
  • UK Theatrical Release Date: June 20th 1997