Published Aug 13, 2013However one may feel about "shock jock" Howard Stern, it's hard not to admire the subversive way he transformed radio by ditching the phony banter and stale conventions that seemed intent on keeping honest talk off the airwaves. His biopic Private Parts is a brisk and funny account of the misunderstood pioneer, revealing a devoted family man who stubbornly insisted on pushing the envelope while on mic with shocking language, outrageous comedy bits and yes, sometimes bringing a woman to orgasm with only his voice.
Opening with his childhood years spent under the thumb of an overbearing father, followed by an awkward teenage phase spent masturbating and smoking pot, Stern then strains credibility by appearing as himself from the onset of his college life. There he meets his eventual wife Alison (Mary McCormack) and begins to learn how to be an on-air personality. The trouble is, that, with his nasal voice and stilted delivery, he is embarrassingly awful at it.
As he drifts through small markets like Hartford and Detroit with Alison and a trailer of their belongings in tow, forging relationships with colleagues like Fred Norris (as himself) along the way, he impresses with his professionalism and work ethic but little else. It's only when he realizes that he must completely commit to saying whatever comes to his mind and meets like-minded newswoman Robin Quivers (playing herself) in Washington, D.C. that he begins to truly build an audience.
Stern is surprisingly natural in front of the camera, showing a tender side when helping his wife through the trauma of a miscarriage that humanizes the abrasive persona he often projects to the world. That's not to say they have polished any of the roughs edges for which he is often castigated, careful to also include racy scenes in which he hosts women getting naked or swallowing kielbasas in the studio.
It's tempting to discount some of the film's impact due to the fact that Stern has since divorced his wife, but he has also re-married and remains a devoted monogamist. The movie builds nicely to Howard's greatest challenges at WNBC in New York, where a cocky executive affectionately known as Pig Vomit (wonderfully embodied by a then-unknown Paul Giamatti) attempts to make Howard conform to their rigid standards and practices.
The undeniable appeal of Stern is best exemplified in a short scene in which a couple of WNBC suits discuss market research revealing how Stern haters listen for even longer than his fans. Both factions agree on their reasons though: "I want to see what he'll say next."
Private Parts screens as part of the TOGA! retrospective at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, August 16th. (Paramount)