“The Story of the Most Influential Radio Station in America” is the subtitle for this documentary about WLIR, a Long Island, NY radio station that championed the new wave music that spewed forth from punk rock. New Wave: Dare to Be Different documents the rise and fall of both the radio station and the music itself by interviewing not only the DJs and other WLIR personnel, but members of many of the bands themselves. Billy Idol, Nick Rhodes (Duran Duran), Mick Score (A Flock of Seagulls), Howard Jones and more tell about their experiences in breaking in America thanks to the station’s support of their music.
In the early Eighties new wave music was rarely heard on the radio. When it was, you generally heard it on a college radio station, such as KCMU here in Seattle. (My own radio alma mater at the University of Washington; now it’s called KEXP and can be heard all over the world.) WLIR was one of the few commercial stations playing this kind of music (though Seattle had Stephen Rabow and KZAM), and because of its proximity to New York City and the headquarters of the record labels, as well as the staff’s enthusiasm, the station was instrumental in the early careers of U2, Depeche Mode, Blondie and many more artists. The story itself seems kind of typical: floundering FM station playing the same ’70s rock as everyone else decides to make a left turn and play something else, does so, develops a small but dedicated audience, turns it into something quite successful, and then has the rug pulled out from under it thanks to some seemingly tiny altercation. Years later, someone decides to make a documentary about said station and here we are with a handy DVD to watch it all unfold. Maybe the story seems typical to me because it is very similar to that of KCMU and probably loads of other college and minor league commercial radio stations in America. It’s a Cinderella story, that’s for sure.
To the filmmakers’ credit, they got all the right people involved, from the DJs and staff to the bands (many of them big enough that they don’t need this exposure). It’s a bit peculiar that the movie is called New Wave: Dare to Be Different, and yet in the film itself the DJs talk about how they never referred to WLIR as a new wave radio station. Deciding on a title must have been a marketing decision. (I mean, if you’re gonna produce a documentary you probably wanna make your money back, right?) Regardless of title, it’s a compelling story that has more meaning every day our culture continues to be gobbled up by big corporations and then spewed back at us in handy, easy-to-explain soundbites and nuggets that lack the life force that birthed and formed it in the first place.
3/5 (MVD Visual DBD 100, 2018)