THE AMP'S ARE ON BUT NOBODY'S HOME
In the early 90s, there was a run on comedies aimed at the so-called “MTV Generation”. The timing of this was likely an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Mike Judge cartoon Beavis and Butt-head and Mike Myers’ hit Wayne’s World, both from 1992. Now that a new demographic had been identified as viable target, Hollywood naturally set their sights on them. Some were of a more straight dramatic measure, but music was a big draw. Musicians were making cameos left, right and centre in these films, and amongst the titles released was Airheads.
Chazz (Brendan), Rex (Steve Buscemi) and Pip (Adam Sandler) are a band, The Lone Rangers, trying to cut into the music business. Hoping for a big break, they sneak into a radio station to get their demo tape played, but end up taking everyone hostage with fake guns when the DJ refuses to play it.
Airheads was the debut script from writer Rich Wilkes, whose work has always reflected his growing up in L.A. and a deep connection to music. It’s a rather odd beast, being that it’s not completely stupid, but not entirely smart either. It’s satirical, but also quite scattergun in choosing its satirical targets. It’s got a definite desire to “say something” to its audience, but seems a little at a loss at times as to what to say. It’s very self-aware, but still lacks a full sense of maturity. It’s plot is cobbled together from a variety of other, better films, but still exudes enough of its own personality to work. Wilkes seems to know from the get-go that the film won’t really be taken seriously, because the characters themselves aren’t taken that seriously. They yell, they stomp, they decry, and they’re pretty stupid, but they’ve got drive and passion and a need to be heard.
Wilkes also knows who these characters are, which does make them much easier to take. An older writer, less familiar with the audience demographic, would probably have relied on some pretty stock characterisations, and it would have just felt false. Not to say that Wilkes’ creations are completely realistic, but they feel much firmer with him. There is perhaps a degree of sexism going on, though. Really the only females we’ve got are Chazz’s girlfriend Kayla and station employee Suzzi, both of whom are a bit broadly written. Kayla is meant to be the strong female presence, but comes off more as a whack-job bitch, and Suzzi is your run-of-the-mill bimbo.
Michael Lehmann, best known for directing Heathers back 1988, does a good job of keeping the pace up the picture. There’s a very slight thematic connection there, looking into untapped youthful angst. Let’s be clear, Heathers does it so much better and is an infinitely better film, but it’s a point that occasionally raises its head here and there in Airheads. He also gets the odd filmic references and “inspirations”, doing what he can to subtly play them up. For example, when Ernie Hudson’s beat cop is trying to negotiate with the band, he has the occasional standoff with the SWAT leader. It’s Die Hard writ in comedy, and Lehmann plays on this very well. He also handles his cast very well, never entirely letting it go far enough to become as ridiculous as it sometimes threatens to become.
The cast do a great job, with a memorable performance given in almost every role. Brendan Fraser brings his great appeal and likability to Chazz. A common complaint at the time was that he was too likable to make Chazz any kind of threat, but many forget that there’s a past to Chazz that is entirely at odds with how he is now, and Fraser is believable as both. In him, you can see how one became the other. Steve Buscemi gives a great largely deadpan performance, and nicely evokes Rex’s slightly aggressive arrogance. Adam Sandler, here before he really hit big, plays a prototype of the kind of character that he would get much mileage out of later on (quite, nice, kind of stupid guy who can freak out with the best of them), but never distracts from the whole. He remains quite sheepish for the most of the film, which makes him much more appealing. Joe Mantegna actually gives Ian some depth, being the once-passionate DJ and music fan, now relegated to watching his beloved medium get taken over by idiots and gimmick acts. Mantegna carries a weariness on him in the role, though he’s still the owner of the old rebellious spirit. Michael McKean, in another mild joke of the movie, does a great, cowardly rat as the station manager; Judd Nelson sports slicked hair, an unsettling smirk and even more unsettling facial hair as the slimeball record exec; David Arquette is a mild comedy gem; Michael Richards plays to his physical comedy strengths; Reg E. Cathey plays the Angry Black Man to a tee; and Nina Siemaszko shows off some great comedy skills, though she is much better than this role.
I mentioned earlier the scattergun nature of Airheads. Given that it is a satire, at least in part, it is something of a misstep that they seem unsure as to what to satirise. There are swings taken at the record industry and the soulless execs at the heart of it, at the spiritless bands that employ gimmicks to make it instead of meaningful music, at the radio stations who keep great bands from being bigger because of label pressure… at the world in general, it would seem. However, on an equal footing, the film knows better than to simply call our heroes actual heroes. It’s aware of the idiocy of their plan. Chazz himself seems to be aware that he is nothing particularly special in the rock scene. It’s not without the sense of irony that, for all of the band’s desire to become stars without resorting to a gimmick, they end up hitting the biggest gimmick of all when they accidentally take everyone hostage.
The biggest thing to take from Airheads, though, is not a failure to adequately aim and fire the satire gun. It’s even really that it is speaking to a particular disaffected generation. The thing that comes across strongest from the film is the innate desire to express oneself, and that is what lies at the heart of not just music, but any art form. Everyone feels things and the also feel the need to express those feelings. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, sometimes it’s eloquence itself, sometimes it’s useless gibberish, sometimes it’s inspiring, sometimes it’s hideously destructive, but it is the root of anything anyone has ever done to make their mark on the world. It almost doesn’t matter what their song is like, so long as they get their chance to be heard. Though, for the record, I like the song.
Airheads is great fun, and has a great spirit to it. It is easy to see why many don’t like and largely dismiss the movie, because it is riddled with faults that should my most measures cripple it. However, this is, to some degree, a good evocation of the kind of erratic nature of a youth who wants nothing more than to say something and be heard, but remains without much of clue as to what to say. It’s certainly not got all the brains in the world, but it does have a lot of heart.