In the roughly 112 years that Hollywood has been churning out feature-length films, radio disc jockeys have made for some interesting, if not iconic, cinematic characters. Record spinners really started appearing onscreen in the 1970s—back when DJs were still able to pick their own music—and here are some of the best.
Stevie Wayne, The Fog (1980). John Carpenter’s cult classic about a seaside town attacked by vengeful corpse lepers hell-bent on punking the town’s 100th-anniversary celebration—and who travel via an unearthly fog—is schlocky, creaky and utterly awesome. Holed-up in a radio-station lighthouse for her overnight shift, Stevie Wayne (Adrienne Barbeau) spends most of the film urging residents of Antonio Bay to “stay away from the fog!” This incites the ire of the wormy-faced spooks who want their stolen gold back, and they chase the DJ across her lighthouse roof with scythes, apparently unaware that she does take requests. How about a little Freda Payne?
Dave Garver, Play Misty for Me (1971). In his directorial debut, Clint Eastwood plays Dave Garver, a smooth-talking night DJ at a small Carmel radio station. Dave is also a frisky bachelor who woos his listeners through poetry and popular standards, both of which ignite the lust of psycho fan Evelyn (Jessica Walter). After Evelyn repeatedly calls in and requests “Misty” by Erroll Garner, Dave naturally beds her—and then she naturally goes full fatal attraction on him. In the end, Dave is really sorry that he banged Evelyn and has definitely learned his lesson: No more Roberta Flack.
The Wolfman, American Graffiti (1973). Writer/director George Lucas’ ode to 1950s cruising follows the lives of three young men over the course of one evening during the heyday of rock & roll. The cast includes an array of future stars—among them Harrison Ford, Richard Dreyfuss, Cindy Williams and Suzanne Sommers—but the most memorable voice in the film belongs to Wolfman Jack, the all-knowing, all-seeing DJ who howls through their car radios and constructs the soundtrack for their lives.
DJ, The Warriors (1979). There’s a heap of gritty action in director Walter Hill’s street-gang classic, but none of it would be nearly as thrilling without the velvety commentary of DJ (Lynne Thigpen). We only ever see DJ’s lovely lips, but her radio warnings to the Warriors, as well as the play-by-play of who’s up and who’s down as rival gangs such as the Baseball Furies and lesbian Lizzies attempt to murder the Warriors, add a unique element of tension and badassery that ensures we all keep our ears to the action, boppers.
Adrian Cronauer, Good Morning,Vietnam (1987). If anyone can distract from the horrors of combat, it’s Robin Williams. Considered his career-defining performance, Williams stars as eccentric military DJ Adrian Cronauer, whose sole mission is to save soldiers’ morale. Williams’ hilarious rants were mostly improvised, but the film also reaches deep into the heart, offering a respectful and woke salute from director Barry Levinson to the men and women we too often forget.
Hard Harry, Pump Up the Volume (1990). Writer/director Allan Moyle’s ode to ’90s teen angst stars Christian Slater as high school student Mark, who was recently transplanted into status quo suburbia and quickly upends it when he launches a pirate radio show featuring expletive-laden commentary. As DJ “Hard Harry,” a nasally Jack Nicholson-type, Mark delights in calling out the hypocrisies of the snootier classes and rallying around acne-faced underdogs, and while it’s all super-white, first-world problems, had there been the internet back then, we all would have scoured YouTube for “How to covertly host a radio show from your bedroom while your parents watch Evening Shade.”
Alan Freed, American Hot Wax (1978). Director Floyd Mutrux’s low-budget biopic of legendary DJ Alan Freed (Tim McIntire)—the man who invented the term “rock & roll”—bombed at the box office but is actually a super-great B-movie with a definite Robert Altman feel. Similar to Altman’s Nashville, Hot Wax doesn’t have much of a plot—basically just following Freed as he discovers new acts and throws a concert that authorities want to quash—but that framing creates a palpable fly-on-the-wall experience of the birth of rock that’s often mesmerizing.
Mister Señor Love Daddy, Do the Right Thing (1989). Samuel L. Jackson is too hip to hassle as Love Daddy, the silver-tongued DJ of a small neighborhood radio station in Spike Lee’s explosive, award-winning film about race-fueled aggressions plaguing a Brooklyn hood. Love Daddy isn’t at the center of any of the multiple storylines, but as with some of his predecessors, he serves as an omnipotent voice of the streets, announcing Jheri Curl alerts, offering weather forecasts, and demanding that everybody cool that shit out—and that’s the double truth, Ruth.