On the Air Live with Captain Midnight - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

On the Air Live with Captain Midnight Reviews

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June 15, 2010
On April 27, 1986, something interesting happened. During a showing of "The Falcon and the Snowman", the HBO satellite signal was overridden with a color bar screen and the following enigmatic words appeared:
$12.95/MONTH ?
The message was seen by all HBO viewers in the Eastern time zone and sparked an FCC investigation that resulted in a $5,000 fine and one year on probation for James MacDougall, a satellite TV dealer in Florida.
This incident, one of the most famous examples of hacking, was inspired by HBO's new model of monthly subscription fees, and, more loosely, by the film "On the Air Live With Captain Midnight".

As an ardent fan of 1990's Christian Slater-starring pirate radio film "Pump Up the Volume", I was interested to see if this earlier film had had any influence on it. While there is very little in the narratives that parallel, the spirit is certainly kin; youthful rebellion- subversive, yet playful and benign.
"On the Air Live With Captain Midnight" eschews the darker themes of "Pump Up the Volume" and instead serves as a rock-n-roll party film. From the strains of "Cat Scratch Fever" to the thrill of cruising the streets in your own van, the film provides a perspective into the life of a California teenager circa 1980.

Marvin 'Ziggy' Ziegler, works as a janitor/gofer in a radio station. When the DJ asks him to man the booth for a couple minutes while he runs to the restroom, the record begins to skip and Ziggy's ignorance of the control board leads to a couple of minutes of garbled, wonky noise from the booth. Meanwhile the station manager hops up and down outside, turning purple, waiting to fire Ziggy as soon as he steps out.

Ziggy needed this job to pay for his van, a surprisingly slick looking machine. He convinces his nerdy friend Gargen to rig his transmitter to broadcast radio from the van, overriding a local station's broadcast. Oddly enough, the first transmission, consisting mostly of Gargen repeating "Hello. Hello." and a phone number is a massive hit, drawing attention from locals, most importantly, local girls. Soon, Captain Midnight is broadcasting uncensored rock and collecting donations from supportive listeners.

This action also draws the attention of "Uncle Charlie", aka the FCC. Agent Pierson is assigned to find and shut down Captain Midnight, as the mysterious voice calls himself. This thread is the source of the conflict in the story, but also leads to some of the more humorous scenes, sometimes inadvertent. Example: Agent Pierson drives around watching a signal monitor in his car. The monitor consists of a single point of light on a small grid, and yet, Agent Pierson is able to relay that the signal is in Santa Monica, now Van Nuys, now 2,500 feet up and moving south (a result of Gargen planting relay transmitters all over town, including on the wing of a plane).

If any film directly influenced this one, I would guess it was "Saturday Night Fever". Scenes featuring Ziggy's family are bizarrely quirky- his mother is incapable of believing her son to be anything other than an angel, his father is a blustering boob and his brother appears to be the prototype of Matthew McConaughey's character from "Dazed and Confused". These strange dynamics result in possibly the best scene in the movie wherein the school psychologist calls the entire family in to address Ziggy's two years of missed class. Between Ziggy's brother's creepy passes, his parents' ping-pong bickering and Ziggy's complete and utter disregard for the process, the poor psychologist is left shaking with frustration and a bottle of aspirin.

The soundtrack is classic '70's rock, requested by the local teens who tune in to hear the pirate transmission. Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent and others are mentioned, meant to invoke the anarchic, raucous energy of youth. It's funny how these artists are presented as icons of rebellion in this film and now represent "corporate" nearly as much as the dreaded disco does.

The directors seem to be particularly interested in facial expressions, as there are an abundance of reaction shots, particularly from Gargen, and Ziggy's father. There are also a lot of scenes of the neon-lit streets of Los Angeles as Ziggy, his girlfriend and Gargen cruise around broadcasting.

The film's low budget is clearly evident, with some poorly lit shots, bad audio and creaky acting. But the ebullient, tongue-in-cheek spirit is infectious and adequately entertains.
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