Release Date: August 5, 1994
Directed by: Michael Lehmann (Heathers, Hudson Hawk)
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Steve Buscemi, Adam Sandler, Ernie Hudson, Joe Mantegna, Chris Farley, Michael McKean, Michael Richards, Judd Nelson
Notable cameos: Stuttering John, Lemmy, Harold Ramis, White Zombie, Kurt Loder
#1 US Movie on this date: The Fugitive
#1 US Album on this date: The Lion King Soundtrack
Landmark Metal Releases in 1994:
Pantera Far Beyond Driven
Mayhem De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas
Darkthrone Transilvanian Hunger
Kyuss Welcome to Sky Valley
Emperor In the Nightside Eclipse
Article by Forrest Green
Released in August of 1994, Airheads was anything but an instant hit. The film’s box office gross was about half of its budget, which caused it to land on a few year end “worst lists”.
Currently, Airheads sits at an abysmally low 23% on Rotten Tomatoes. Simply stated, this is egregious.
Despite the arbitrarily low “score”, I’ve seen this movie hundreds of times, and usually watch it a few times a year. It was a staple of my formative teen years, and greatly helped influence me to pursue heavy music.
“You catch that one, G?”
“What’d she rank on the Clydesdale Scale?”
“A hundred copies of Moby Dick.”
“The Book or the movie?”
“They made a book out of that?”
The aforementioned Airhead’s quotes, as well as about a few dozen other classics, still get tossed around my office every now and then.
Airheads tells the story about a day in the life of Chaz (Chester) Darby, frontman and guitarist for the struggling, LA powerslop trio, The Lone Rangers (how do you pluralize the Lone Ranger?).
Chaz spends most of his days getting kicked out of record company buildings, forgetting to pay the rent, and ruining his girlfriend’s makeup (It fell in the toilet. I told you not to leave it on the tank!).
At night, Chaz is found grinding it out on the local scene, playing in front of crowds composed mainly of “other bands and their girlfriends”. Anyone who’s struggled in the local music scene anywhere knows this feeling all too well.
I myself have played many shows for the bartender, door man, and about three other people who couldn’t think of anything better to do on a Thursday night. Lots of open mic nights with lots of open seats and, every now and again, a good friend or two showing up for a confidence boost. The crowd WAS the guest list, minus a few people.
The Lone Rangers’ rhythm section is composed of brothers Pip (Sandler) and Rex (Buscemi). Both actors have great chemistry as bickering siblings and, interestingly enough, Airheads is actually their first of several movies together. They’re not all “high art”, but here I am praising an unpopular Brendan Fraser movie, so what the fuck do I know?
Pip plays drums and cleans pools, while Rex steals from his toy store and plays bass. Rex’s likeness may or may not be based on Rex Brown from Pantera. I’ll let you decide:
After catching an album release party for Scrambled Eggs and Wobbly Legs by the Sons of Thunder (played by actual metal band Galactic Cowboys), the Rangers realize they must get their single played on the radio if they are ever going to get signed. Armed with an arsenal of toy guns discontinued because they look too real, the band sets its sights on KPPX Rebel Radio, the local station responsible for the Sons of Thunder’s meteoric rise.
After clumsily breaking into Rebel Radio, the Rangers’ get a brief interview with disgruntled DJ Ian the Shark (Mantegna). When station director Milo (McKean) attempts to disparagingly kick them out, Rex pulls out his toy uzi and quickly escalates the harmless exchange into a full-blown hostage situation.
Fun fact: This filming location is directly across the street from LA’s Fox Plaza. You may also remember it as Die Hard’s “Nakatomi Plaza”.
The rest of the film plays out with a superb cast of supporting characters inside the station. Reg E. Cathey (RIP), Michael Richards, and David Arquette are a few of the staff on the clock at the time of the takeover. Michael McKean’s pompous, pony-tailed character Milo is the character everyone loves to hate.
While Airheads is mostly one hilarious and absurd situation after the other, there are a few brief moments of genuine levity and empathy between the captors and their hostages. You know, besides Pip fucking receptionist Suzie on Milo’s $1,400 couch.
During a legitimate heart-to-heart scene, DJ Ian and Chaz discuss rock stars and their tattoos. Chaz proceeds to show off his ink, taking special note of the Grim Reaper on his back. DJ Ian chastises him on his choice of such a morbid image, instead of something simple like “MOM”. Chaz responds that the Reaper is a reminder that death is always stalking him, and he desperately needs to get out and make his dreams happen for himself, because that’s all he has left.
As I get older, I understand this scene more and more each day.
Every year gets shorter than the last, so it’s imperative to go out there and make shit happen for yourself. Whether you risk it all to pursue your passions, or spend everyday grinding it out at a 9 to 5, the destination is the same for us all, so why the fuck not? Anyways, where was I…
Oh yeah, the music. The soundtrack is pretty killer and prototypical 90’s.
Leading us through the opening credits, we get “Born to Raise Hell” by Motorhead featuring Ice T and Whitfield Crane (Ugly Kid Joe). Lemmy (RIP), the man himself, appears later in a brief, witty cameo.
We also get a fitting meta moment with the legendary Motorhead frontman, as he is the subject of another classic exchange between the Rangers’ and a “record exec” played by the late Harold Ramis.
“Who would win in a wrestling match, Lemmy or God?”
“Trick question dickhead, Lemmy IS God”
The film’s soundtrack contains a vast array of 90s rock staples, to include Prong, Primus, Anthrax, Candlebox, and a 4 Non Blondes cover Van Halen’s “I’m the One”.
Even 90’s metal legends White Zombie make a surprise appearance, performing “Feed the Gods” at LA’s infamous Whiskey a Go Go.
The Whiskey serves as the backdrop for a scene where rookie cop Wilson (Farley, RIP) attempts to hunt down Chaz’s girlfriend in search of a playable copy of the Lone Rangers’ demo. During this effort, Wilson runs into a few metal goons who don’t take kindly to his presence, forcing him to “improvise”.
For the live band scene, the filmmakers considered Metallica, Testament, and Cannibal Corpse. Both Metallica (still on tour for 1991’s Black album) and Testament quickly turned down the offer. The film’s producers decided against Cannibal Corpse after they discovered the death metal pioneers had already rocked the shit out of Ace Ventura.
While it doesn’t carry the same cultural significance of some of the all time great comedies, Airheads remains a personal favorite with infinite replayability.
Anyone who grew up with the 90’s era Saturday Night Live cast will enjoy seeing Sandler, Farley, and McKean in this movie as much as any of their other films released during that time. Judd Nelson, Ernie Hudson, and Marshall Bell (Quaid, start the reactor!) help round out the supporting cast with equally solid performances.
Fans of other early to mid-90’s SNL classics like Wayne’s World, Tommy Boy, Billy Madison, and Dirty Work will find Airheads a suitable addition to their collections.
Airheads is also a perfect watch for those who want to relive the weird time that was the mid-90’s in rock and heavy music. Thinking back, 1994 was an oddly transitional year in popular music. Kurt Cobain committed suicide just days after Nirvana pulled out of their headline spot on Lollapalooza. Around the same time, Metallica wrapped up their three year tour for the Black album, effectively bringing an end to what many fans consider to be their prime years.
Against all odds in a very “unmetal” landscape, both of these albums debuted at the coveted #1 spot on the Billboard charts. In the same year, Hootie and the Blowfish, TLC, and Green Day were among those who released some of the best selling albums of all time. For two metal bands to sneak in among a list of multi-platinum artists is no small feat.
In the late fall of ‘94, Meshuggah would go on to release their groundbreaking EP, None. By creating the oft-debated subgenre of djent, the band from small town Sweden introduced a significant seismic shift in the sound of metal at large.
Additionally, Black Metal had a handful of landmark releases from Emperor, Mayhem, and Darkthrone.
On the US’s West Coast, a relatively unknown band named Korn would polarize the metal world forever with their self-titled debut release, paving the way for Nu Metal.
For all of its ups and downs, 1994 was a pivotal year for heavy music. Airheads successfully captured the struggle, swagger, and fun of this era.
Oh yeah, and The Lone Rangers went triple platinum with their release of “Live In Prison”.
Rock and Roll!
Buy Airheads here.