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Manhattan sophisticates of yesteryear liked to sneer at the “Bridge & Tunnel” crowd — the suburbanites who came in on weekends, pretending to be cool at bars and concerts while broadcasting their squareness loudly to anyone truly in the know. Ironically, for five years in the eighties, the nation’s (arguably) hippest radio station was way out on Long Island: WLIR, whose list of “we played them first” bands — allegedly including U2, Prince, Madonna and Duran Duran — runs so long, it is difficult to believe. First-time filmmaker Ellen Goldfarb shares the sentimental view of her subjects here, offering an uncritical but fun portrait of this station that will be enjoyed by viewers who remember the dawn of the MTV Age.
Lest we doubt the film’s claims, Goldfarb offers plenty of artist testimonials: An old audio clip from a U2 concert finds Bono name-checking WLIR from the stage, citing it as one of the few stations that would play them in the early days. Manager Paul McGuinness shows up here to verify this, recalling that Manhattan stations had no interest in the boys from Ireland and their hard-to-classify sound. Billy Idol, Joan Jett, and Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes are among the musicians recalling the station’s importance to new artists; publicists and mover-shakers like Sire’s Seymour Stein say that the industry was even more alert to its influence. A regular listener contest called “Screamer of the Week,” in which fans would decide which new track went into super-heavy rotation, had such an impact on record sales that it was monitored as far away as London.
That was more impressive in an age that wasn’t only pre-Internet but practically pre-FedEx. Back then, it could take months, even years, for a hot English musician to get a single or album released stateside. Where other radio stations seemed happy to wait, WLIR DJs would make special arrangements, having Brits ship new records over and actually going down to the airport to pick up the goods. They’d get their hands on prerelease test pressings; in cases like Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax,” they’d upset an American label’s marketing department by breaking airplay embargoes.
Listeners went wild for it. Their devotion is remembered well by Program Director Denis McNamara, who shows us the station’s dumpy old studio/office — like a shack added to the roof of an existing office building — where bands would drop by for on-air interviews and leave to find fans camped out in the stairwell for autographs.
Storytelling from McNamara, his DJs and the bands is more enjoyable than the doc’s more general notes on the decade’s zeitgeist. In the second half, it starts to feel like it’s checking themes (politics, fashion, the alleged wimpiness of synthesizers) off a list. Things get a bit hazy at the end of the tale, when a long-running dispute over the station’s FCC license results in its closure. Preferring to focus on the tearful goodbyes and the lamentations of fans, the doc ignores the fact that, even after WLIR stopped controlling 92.7 FM in 1987, the format it birthed lived on for Long Islanders. Eventually, of course, the college-station-like “alternative” format would become the mainstream, and Top 40 would find new ways to bore adventurous music lovers. But that’s a story for another doc.
Production companies: Dare to be Different, Jomyra Productions, Roger Senders Productions
Director: Ellen Goldfarb
Screenwriter: Jay Reiss
Producers: Ellen Goldfarb, Roger Senders
Executive producers: Denis McNamara, Gregg Goldfarb
Director of photography: Greg Daniels
Editor: Allan Holzman
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Sales: Andrew Herwitz, Film Sales Company
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