Film Reviews

Radio Daze

During the first few minutes of Howard Stern's romp through his inexplicable life, he spells out his mission: Private Parts will both convert the nonbelievers and entertain the cult. Stern wants to give you plenty of hot lesbian action (and freed from FCC restrictions, he takes real pleasure in saying "fuck"), but he also wants you to see how soft and cuddly he is outside of the radio studio and in the arms of his wife, Alison. He wants you to peek behind the Wizard's curtain, to see the man behind the monster; but he doesn't peel back too much, just enough to make you feel like you've seen it all.

Howard Stern, you see, is an asshole, and he knows it. Furthermore, he knows you know it. "I really don't know why I step over the line sometimes," he says in the opening moments, narrating off-screen as his pooper-hero character, Fartman, hangs from the rafters of the MTV Video Music Awards -- the man literally puts his flaccid ass on the line. "I feel like an asshole." And Stern wants you to know he's sorry about it. The man wants to apologize (sort of), to explain (kind of) all those things he says on the radio. "Most things I do are misunderstood," he insists.

Howard Stern wants you to understand him, maybe even to like him. "I want them to love me," Stern says to both his fans and his detractors. "Not the myth -- the man."

And so Private Parts is less about the King of All Media and more about the schmuck who can barely rule his own life; it's more Woody Allen than Fartman, more Jewish-geek-makes-good than superstar-who-wishes-cruel-death-upon-his-rivals. Private Parts reveals the "other" Howard Stern -- the doting husband who'd never dream of cheating on supportive, forgiving wife Alison (fictionalized here by Mary McCormack), the father of three, the son who followed in his father's clumsy broadcasting footsteps. After having been reviled for so long as the two-dimensional racist, the drooling lech who can get a woman to strip to her bare essentials and let him spank her, Stern now seeks to be accepted as a guy innocently giggling behind the microphone even as the world sneers in contempt.

The book from which the film takes its name opens with a chapter titled "My Philosophy" ("Lesbians, lesbians, lesbians"), but the movie is less about that brilliant on-air boor and more about the off-air mortal. Warm, kindhearted, thoughtful and often hilarious, Private Parts depicts a bungling Yber-klutz -- the DJ who knocks the needles off records, the college student who couldn't get laid by a blind woman, the unshackled radio star whose on-air mischief causes turmoil at home. It's about the ramifications of being the world's most obnoxious human being, the price paid for saying whatever the hell comes into your head. Stern the humorist speaks before he thinks; Stern the actor worries over every single syllable.

In some ways, Private Parts makes an interesting companion piece to Woody Allen's intimate 1987 Radio Days, which was coated with a golden-toned nostalgic romanticism that gets all over Stern's film as well. Early on in Private Parts, Howard's father, Ben -- played, appropriately enough, by Richard Portnow, who was in Radio Days and Good Morning, Vietnam -- takes his seven-year-old son (Bobby Borriello) down to work, a grand old Manhattan radio station basked in rich hues and deep shadows. There, Howard watches as the manic Symphony Sid (Richard Shull, another Radio Days alum) destroys records and curses up a storm, off the air. Howard gazes at Sid's rampage with wide-eyed affection; he's a kid who has come face to face with his new idol, who has figured out what he wants to be when he grows up.

For decades now Stern has recounted his tales of growing up white in an all-black neighborhood -- most of which end with his getting beaten up. But in the film, Stern and director Betty Thomas wrap his teen years in a blanket of warm affection. In one scene, a carload of Howard's high-school buddies are talking about leaving the neighborhood because of the schvartzes. Stern's mother, Ray (Kelly Bishop), shuts them down by shouting at them that Howard and she are "half-Negro." It's not a racial joke, because it's not mean-spirited; it's just part of a kid's coming-of-age in the Long Island of the 1960s.

In the end, of course, Private Parts is no more "honest" than Madonna's Truth or Dare: Stern, like Madonna, doesn't tell you the entire story, merely the chapters that best suit his agenda. But it's a terrific tale nonetheless -- the story of how a shlub chased his dream (getting on the radio, poor bastard), fell in love with a woman who'd stick with him even as he revealed their most intimate secrets to millions and became a superstar despite the interference of radio execs who tried to cut his legs out from under him. It's recognizable enough to appeal to those outside the cult, revelatory enough to excite the rabid fans who have heard these stories for years. It's also fascinating enough to make you wonder just where fact, fiction and revisionist history collide.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky