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Review: Private Parts (1997)

Private Parts (1997)

Directed by: Betty Thomas

Premise: A biographical movie about radio shock jock Howard Stern (playing himself). Based on his memoir, the film dramatizes Stern’s early career from his childhood and college radio experience to the top of the New York radio market.

What Works: Howard Stern was one of the essential pop cultural figures of the 1990s. His radio broadcasts put him in the crosshairs of the FCC but they also endeared him to a very loyal audience. As part of Stern’s strategy to become “the king of all media” he created projects in different channels. Among them was his bestselling memoir Private Parts which was adapted into a feature film. The production of Private Parts took an unusual approach. The picture was in no uncertain terms a dramatization but the filmmakers recruited several key characters to play themselves, most importantly Howard Stern. At that point Stern was so exposed to the public that no actor could have pulled off the role anyway. But Stern, who was not a professional actor, does an excellent job. He is generally natural and relaxed on camera and is so busy hamming it up for the radio audience that he doesn’t appear to be performing for the camera. The film also recruits several of Stern’s cohorts to play themselves, namely Robin Quivers, Fred Norris, Gary Dell’Abate, and Jackie Martling. All of this self-casting gives Private Parts an extra dose of credibility while also appeasing Stern’s fan base. But despite its cinema verite flourishes, Private Parts is a fairly straightforward rags-to-riches story. The first part of the movie dramatizes young Howard Stern’s relationship with his father, who was also in the radio field, and Stern’s disastrous early efforts at a career in broadcasting. Stern and the filmmakers don’t shy away from making him look ridiculous and that makes him endearing. Private Parts is also a romance between Howard Stern and his then-wife Allison (Mary McCormack). Co-starring in Private Parts is Paul Giamatti as a smarmy WNBC producer who tries to censor Stern’s program. These subplots make Stern an underdog and Private Parts is calculating but effective in building sympathy for Stern and putting the viewer on his side. It also captures all the qualities that made Stern such a hit with his audience.

What Doesn’t: There is no getting around the fact that Private Parts primarily exists to advance Stern’s public image and to expand the reach and value of his brand. That’s softened by how ridiculous it makes him look but Private Parts is an ego trip on Stern’s part. There are parallels to be made between Private Parts and The People vs. Larry Flynt which was released a year earlier. Both films are stories of men from modest backgrounds who made a fortune with pornographic material, got into free speech battles, and became pop cultural icons. However, there is a criticism of The People vs. Larry Flynt that is also applicable to Private Parts. Both Flynt and Stern challenged corporate and community censorship but the expression at issue was frequently sexist and stupid. And while Flynt actually challenged people with cultural and political power, Stern did not and his antics were just about showmanship and ratings. To its credit, Private Parts is honest about that and doesn’t make Howard Stern more than he was. But both The People vs. Larry Flynt and Private Parts absent-mindedly celebrate free speech without much regard for the quality or content of the speech. Also uncommented upon in Private Parts is the way Stern lowered the bar for commercial radio. In an effort to duplicate his success, stations across the country hired vulgar and stupid clowns who had none of the Stern’s intelligence or charm. All of those considerations are outside the purview of this film.

DVD extras: None.

Bottom Line: Private Parts is a very entertaining movie. It should be understood for what it is and the film is unlikely to reach viewers who can’t stand Stern’s raunchy shtick. But Private Parts tells its story well and with a lot of humor.

Episode: #658 (July 30, 2017)