Just forget the words and sing along

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Good Morning, Vietnam

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, where I blog about the movies I own on DVD and my thoughts upon rewatching them.  Again, I need to remind you that I tend to work about 6 months ahead or so on these.  For example, I wrote this one on August 17, 2014.  We had just heard the news of the death of Robin Williams, and that's what inspired me to re-watch on of my favourite films of his, Good Morning, Vietnam.

Well, the entire world was saddened this past week at the unexpected death of Robin Williams.  Truly a great in the world of comedy.  And I've remarked before that one of his movies inspired me to be where I am today.

Seeing Good Morning, Vietnam when I was 10 was what made me want to be a radio announcer. 

I don't remember what exactly about the TV commercials made me want to see it.  All I knew was it looked like a funny movie.  I've blogged before how a lot of friends figure I had a rather conservative upbringing because I'm not big on horror movies.  Well, lots of R-rated movies were viewed in my house, but they were comedies...the kind where a 4-letter word or gratuitous topless nudity was the punchline.  And here I was, 10 years old, and I got to see Good Morning, Vietnam in the theatre. 

After that, radio was my life.  I was the kid who started making his own radio shows with his cassette player.  For the fifth grade talent show, I did announcer banter, for criminey's sake.  But, more so than the movie, it was probably the soundtrack album that forever hooked me on the medium of radio.  For my birthday, I got my first boombox, and the soundtrack album.  If you've never had the soundtrack album, in addition to songs used in the movie, it also features a lot of Robin William's announcer breaks from the movie.  It never occurred to me to record an announcer off the radio and listen to them over and over again.  So this was the first time where I could truly study a radio announcer and attempt to figure out what made them so good.  I wore out that cassette just listening to it over and over and over again, trying to figure out what it takes to be good on the radio.

I saw it that once in the theatre.  Rented it when it came out on video.  Maybe saw it once or twice on TV.  I never really saw it again until I got accepted to NAIT's broadcasting program.  In the weeks leading up to the start of school, I saw the DVD for just $5 and figured, "Maybe it it's time I remind myself of why I'm doing this."

Of course, in the intervening years, the Internet came along, and I started reading about the making of the film, and how true this "based on a true story" film was.  Yes, Adrian Cronauer is a real person.  Yes, he was the morning show host for the American Armed Forces Radio Network in Vietnam in the 1960s.  Yes, he started his morning show with "Good Morning, Vietnam."  And...that's about all the movie got right.  Cronauer reflected on his times as a military radio announcer in the 1960s, and he figured it would make a good sitcom.  He didn't set out to be anti-establishment, like the movie, but, as Cronauer put it, "anti-stupidity."  Since MASH and WKRP were two of the most popular TV shows at the time, he pitched it around Hollywood as "MASH meets WKRP."  Studios turned him down, giving the reason that you can't make a sitcom set during a war, with MASH being some rare exception.  Cronauer decided to shift gears, and sell it as a TV movie.

Enter Robin Williams.  After Mork and Mindy, Williams' film career was actually off to a rocky start, as most film producers didn't know how to handle his incredibly unique humour.  When the script for Good Morning, Vietnam came across Williams' desk, he realized that playing a radio announcer would be the perfect role to demonstrate his skills.  The script was bought by Disney (and made under their Touchstone label), and heavily re-written into a showcase for Robin Williams. 

And the rest is history.  The film was a massive hit, netting Williams his first Oscar nomination for Best Actor and making him a certified movie star. 

I'm pretty sure you know the plot.  Saigon, 1965.  Airman Adrian Cronauer reports for duty at Armed Forces Radio Saigon as their new morning show host.  Needless to say, the zany Robin Williams comedy he injects into his show, along with ditching the military-issue easy listening playlist for more current rock n' roll, offends his superiors.  Despite this flagrant abuse of military regulations, the General allows it, because it's good radio and the troops love him.  Becoming infatuated with a local girl, Cronauer begins teaching ESL classes on the side as a way to get closer to her.  While nothing romantic ever blooms because of the culture clash, he does become really good friends with her and her brother. 

Radio announcer...spends some time in Asia...teaches ESL...dear God, I have been patterning my life after this movie.

Watching it again tonight, I was almost a little sad that this turned into such a powerhouse for Williams, and as such, none of the other radio personnel get a chance to shine.  We've got another certifiable comedy legend, Robert Wuhl, in there as another announcer.  And while we get a bit of a backstory as to how he's a neat freak "with cleaning products shipped in from Wisconsin," we hardly get to know him.  If these characters had a little more breathing room, I'm sure we would have gotten more of that "MASH meets WKRP" that the real Cronauer originally pitched.

About the only other radio personnel that's developed are the villains of our piece.  Lt. Hauk, played by another great comedic character actor, Bruno Kirby, who's pretty much the PD.  He's OK with comedy on the radio, as long as it's military issue.  When he does finally get on the air -- filling in for Cronauer who's on suspension for his antics -- his brand of humour is horrendously bad.  The movie tells us Cronauer was the first Armed Forces Radio announcer to get fan mail.  Then Hauk was truly the first to get hate mail.  Hauk's poor performance and the backlash from the audience are what finally get Cronauer back on the air.  After Hauk hopelessly fights to keep his on-air spot, he finally acquiesces to the general's request.  And with a salute, he says to the general, "In my heart, I know I'm funny." 

I guess, that's why, watching it again, I now find Hauk to be a more sympathetic character.  "In my heart, I know I'm funny" is something I've muttered to myself after many a rejection letter. 

But our true villain is Sgt. Mjr. Dickerson, who's Cronauer's direct superior.  As explained, he was once the squad leader in an elite combat unit, but transferred to radio for the crime of being an asshole.  Even though he's running a radio station, now, in his mind that doesn't change the fact that they are a military in a war, and Cronauer's style flies in the face of all that.  Dickerson winds up kicking off the film's climax.  When Cronauer proposes a segment where he interviews troops out in the field, Dickerson purposely sends Cronauer into an area that's recently fallen to the enemy, in hopes that Cronauer will get killed in action.  Sheesh, I've had differences with my bosses, but at least none have tried to orchestrate a workplace accident to get me killed. 

At least Dickerson get his comeuppance when, because of his vendetta against Cronauer, he's transferred to Guam, far from any of the action.  Says the general about Dickerson's behaviour, "I used to you think you were crazy.  But now I see that you're just mean.  And this is just radio." 

I've run into a few in the biz that that line can be used to describe.

But the scene that always brings it home for me is the traffic jam.  Even though his suspension has been lifted, Cronauer is considering packing it in because he's sick and tired of all the bureaucratic BS.  While being brought back to the office by his friend and company clerk Eddie Garlik, they get stuck in a traffic jam behind some troop transports.  Seeking to show Cronauer the importance of his job, Garlik announces to the troops that he's got the one, the only Adrien Cronauer in his Jeep.  Upon some prodding from the troops, Cronauer gives an impromptu performance for the troops.  And seeing how the troops' spirits are lifted, well, that gives Cronauer the strength to keep going on.

That scene just describes my philosophy behind what I do.  When I get behind the mic, my hope is to life your spirits for a moment and take your mind of your shitty day.  Be it with some good music, or a silly story I share, I just hope to make your day a little brighter.  Granted, I've never gotten the adulation that Adrien Cronauer got in the film, not even as much as a kind Facebook post, but I hope that that's what I'm accomplishing. 

Good Morning, Vietnam.  That movie has shaped me in many, many ways. 

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