by HANSON O'HAVER
dir. Michael Lehmann
In the early 1990s, a group of men set out — unknowingly, as these feats invariably are unknowable — to make the most tumblr-ready film of all time. The result, 1994's Airheads, was received as a disaster, both critically and commercially. It opened in 11th place, grossing less than $2 million. Only in hindsight, as the internet enters its fifth year of nineties revisionism, can the film's accomplishments truly be celebrated.
Airheads stars Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi, and Adam Sandler as members of a struggling rock band, the awkwardly named The Lone Rangers ("How can you pluralize The Lone Ranger?"). Adam Sandler's character, Pip, is a hint at his later mastery of the 'grown man talking in baby voice' archetype. Fraser, as a non-time traveler and Buscemi, as a surprisingly svelte non-psycho, play somewhat against type. What the band lacks in talent and cohesive sound they make up for in ambition and fake UZIs.
The plot is as follows: Desperate to get their demo heard by A&R execs and radio disc jockeys, they sneak into a radio station. With much prompting from realistic-looking plastic firearms (which are secretly filled with hot sauce, in lieu of bullets), they force a Hawaiian-shirted on-air personality to play their song. (Notice how bands in movies about bands trying to make it always have one song. See also: That Thing You Do.) But then! A discarded cigarette causes their demo reel to malfunction, and the band decide to hightail it out of the studio.
They have second thoughts about leaving upon realizing that the building has been surrounded by members of Hollywood's Finest. Instead, they head back into the studio, lock the doors, and, this time, really take everyone hostage (the previous interaction had just been one of those quotidian fauxstage situations). Because this whole thing happens on-air, a group of heavy metal aficionados join the police in the parking lot, in an expression of solidarity with the Rangers.
One of the hostages, a mustachioed, pre-Seinfeld fame Michael Richards, reveals that the radio station is about to change formats, from hard rock to adult contemporary. This invokes Stockholm syndrome from the hostages. Eventually, a clever but evil (signifier: he has a goatee) A&R executive negotiates a deal with the band, as do the police. Next comes a minor prison sentence and an At Folsom Prison-esque concert. The film ends with one of those "what happened next" slides that doesn't make sense for a fictional movie to have: "THE LONE RANGERS served three months for kidnapping, theft, and assault with hot pepper sauce. Their album, LIVE IN PRISON, went triple platinum."
In 1994, I was not concerned with things like youth culture and authenticity and how the former views the latter. Consequently, I'm not sure how this movie was perceived by its intended audience. That said, if its box office reception is any indication, it probably wasn't seen as an accurate representation of The Way They Lived Then.
After all, by 1994, heavy metal was completely finished (at least in today's memory of 1994; in reality, metal bands were still going platinum). As a point of reference: grunge hit Reality Bites came out six months before Airheads. The Lone Rangers are, undoubtedly, a metal band. They reference Tommy Lee and places like The Whisky. Yet they wear pieces of flannel (one gets the feeling these were added by a panicked market researcher) and take on an unmistakable slacker vibe. This intergenre awkwardness is perhaps best illuminated by the fact that the soundtrack features 4 Non Blondes covering Van Halen. Thus that the film wasn't successful in 1994 shouldn't be surprising; what is weird is that Airheads isn't particularly popular today.
Readers with even passing familiarity with tumblr know that platform exists almost primarily to blog (and re-blog) an endless cycle of pictures of semi-nude girls, nude girls, stills from old movies, memes, and band photos. Because we're caught in a 90s revival (Read: early 90s revival — no one is wearing Miller's Outpost or listening to Backstreet Boys. Yet.), a huge percentage of tumblr's images hail from that time period.
Airheads would seem to be a perfect match. Off the top of my head, here are examples images from the film which, if blogged, would get hundreds of notes: Brendan Fraser's girlfriend in a leopard leotard; Adam Sandler; Brendan Fraser shooting hot sauce from an Uzi into a microwave burrito; Steve Buscemi looking tough; A screen shot of the scene where a metal fan admits "I used to wear corduroys!"; Steve Buscemi's eyes (the internet loves Steve Buscemi); Michael Richards in a fake mustache with subtitles about his hemorrhoids; the band playing in prison uniforms; the list continues but you get the point.
It's a mystery, then, that Airheads isn't omnipresent in the way that pictures of girls who are naked in places where they shouldn't be naked are omnipresent. The best barometer of tumblr success is the existence of a "Fuck Yeah ____" blog; as far as I can tell, there is no Fuck Yeah Airheads. (There are "Fuck Yeah" tumblrs for, among other things, candy, dreadlocks, Fight Club, hot girls, hot boys, Glee, dykes, and Chron's disease.)
There are two possible explanations for this. A: The internet doesn't like Airheads, presumably because it is a bad movie. This is possible, except when has quality control ever stopped the internet from embracing anything? Thus we're left with option B: The internet doesn't really know about Airheads. This seems unlikely (doesn't the internet know about everything?), but a quick survey of my friends on tumblr just confirmed: They're mostly unfamiliar with the Airheads. In which case, if they ever get around to watching it, tumblr is in for a treat.
Hanson O'Haver is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in New York. He tumbls here and twitters here. He last wrote in these pages about Lou Reed's album with Metallica. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.
"Degenerated" - The Lone Rangers (mp3)
"Curious George Blues" - Dig (mp3)
"Bastardizing Jellikit" - Primus (mp3)
"I'm the One" - 4 Non Blondes (mp3)