Movie Review: ‘Billboard’ lampoons radio-station stunt
For better or worse, over the decades, the Lehigh Valley has made the regional, national and international news.
In recent years and decades, there’s been the 15-year sentencing of former Allentown Mayor Ed Pawlowski on 38 counts of political corruption (October 2018); the Allentown car-explosion that killed three (September 2018); the renaissance in the past 10 years of center city Allentown, including the successful PPL Center (opening in 2014) and the champtionships of its Lehigh Valley Phantoms ice-hockey team, and Coca-Cola Park with its championship IronPigs baseball team (beginning in 2008), as well as the cities of Bethlehem, including the Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem (opening in 2011) and Sands Bethlehem Event Center (opening in 2012), and Easton, including the success of the renovated State Theatre Center for the Arts (beginning in 1986); the Allentown gas explosion that killed five and destroyed eight homes (2011); ceasing of operations of Bethlehem Steel Corp. (in 2003; founded in 1904); moving of Mack Trucks, Inc., headquarters from Allentown (2008), the Concept Sciences, Inc. chemical explosion that killed two and leveled the plant in Hanover Township, Lehigh County (1999); the collapse of the Corporate Plaza office building in Allentown (1994); the filming of director John Waters’ “Hairspray” (1988) at Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom (1987) and, of course, the release of Billy Joel’s “Allentown” song, lead track on his album, “The Nylon Curtain” (1982).
There have been more media milestones for the Lehigh Valley, including perhaps the most bizarre of all, “The Billboard Sitters.”
In a promotional contest devised in 1982 by Harold G. Fulmer III (who died in 2009), owner of WSAN-AM radio, three contestants, Dalton Young, Ron Kistler and Mike MacKay (who died in 2006), competed to live the longest on the catwalk of a billboard in the vicinity of Route 22 and MacArthur Road, Whitehall. Young was arrested for selling marijuana on day 184. The other two lasted 261 days, each receiving a mobile home and a car. “Billboard Boys,” a 2017 documentary by Philadelphia-born director Pat Taggart recounted the real-life story.
Lehigh Valley film-maker Zeke Zelker puts the fictional spin on the real-life contest with “Billboard,” a comedy for which the adage “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” seems apt.
In “Billboard,” Casey (John Robinson) has inherited the fictional Allentown, Pa., radio station, WTYT 960, from his father. The station, which is in debt and sustained by its loyal staff, including Jezebel (Heather Matarazzo), Henry (Ali Wills), Ronny (Leo Fitzpatrick) and J.C. (Lawrence Kochoa), who support the concept and, with WTYT, the reality of independent radio stations.
WTYT is getting clobbered in the ratings by another, financially-successful, station run by Rick (Eric Roberts), owned by the fictional Free Channel radio conglomerate.
Casey decides to hold a billboard-sitting contest. The person who lives the longest on the billboard is to receive a mobile home and $96,000. Among the contestants is Josh (Michael Fegley).
Zelker (writer-director-producer, “InSearchOf,” 2009; “It’s a Wiley World!,” 2003; “Affairs,” 1997) directs “Billboard” with one hand over his mouth guffawing and the other poking the audience in the rib, with a judicious amount of “wink, wink” just outside the frame of vision.
“Billboard” updates the setting of the real-life story to the world of cell phones, tablet computers, social media and hashtags. Zelker’s cockamamie comedy begs the question: “In a media-saturated world, when is too much too much?”
In the hands of WTYT owner Casey, as well as those of rival rado-station owner Rick, the answer is an unequivocal “never.”
In his screenplay, Zelker doesn’t let anybody off the hook. Casey, a seeming “good guy” and innocent, is no less ruthless than Rick, the corporate power-broker.
In this, Zelker puts an interesting spin on the billboard-sitters radio-promotion contest. Everyone involved in the gambit is complicit in the the media frenzy, pushback and near-tragic results. Analogous to this, in a way, so are “Billboard” movie-goers. It’s a very clever strategem.
The cinematography by Direotor Photography Matthew M. Blum (sound, editing credits, “InSearchOf,” “It’s a Wiley World!”) balances the many exterior and interior scenes with panache.
Roberts (Oscar nominee, supporting actor, “Runaway Train,” 1985; “Star 80,” 1983; “King of the Gypsies,” 1978) is great as a radio executive with a heart of numbers. He makes ruthlessness seem like fun.
Robinson (“Transformers,” 2007; “Lords of Dogtown,” 2005; “Elephant,” 2003) plays the role of WTYT radio station owner Casey with a Shaggy (from TV’s animated cartoon series, “Scooby Doo”) slacker vibe. Casey seems clueless as to how to run a radio station and Robinson captures this aspect thoroughly.
Wills (“Boston2Philly,” 2016; “Luv Don’t Live Here,” 2015) is impressive as Casey’s assistant. Wills parlays a full range of emotions as we follow her character from supportive to frustrated.
Matarazzo (“The Princess Diaries,” 2001; “Welcome to the Dollhouse” 1995) plays a WTYT radio station staffer with an endearing pugnacity.
Fitzpatrick (“Bully,” 201; “Kids,” 1995) plays another WTYT staffer with an ornery intensity.
“Billboard” includes numerous Lehigh Valley area residents in supporiting roles, including Ashley Russo, Valerie Bittner, Syd Stauffer, Doug Kemmerer, Troy Brokenshire, Keith Moser and Elaine Zelker, as well as many Lehigh Valley residents as extras.
“Billboard” is an ambitious film that revisits an era and asks us to take a second look. This is one “Billboard” you can’t miss.
“Billboard,” No MPAA Rating; Genre: Drama, Comedy; Run Time: 1 hr., 29 mins.; Distributed by iDreamMachine
Credit Readers Anonymous: “Billboard” was filmed on location in Allentown, Pa., U.S.A.
Box Office, Nov. 2: “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the biorgraphy drama about Freddie Mercury and the rock bank Queen rocked the weekend box office, opening with $50 million, handily dancing around “The Nutcracker And The Four Realms,” opening at No. 2 with $20 million; “Nobody’s Fool,” opening at No. 3 with $14 million, and scaring “Halloween” from its two-week perch at No. 1 down four places to No. 5 with $11 million, $150.4 million, three weeks, as “As Star Is Born” dropped two places to No. 4 with $11.1 million and $165.6 milliion, five weeks.
6. “Venom” dropped three places, $7.8 million, $198.6 million, five weeks. 7. “Smallfoot” stepped up one place, $3.8 million, $77.4 million, six weeks. 8. “Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween” shivered down four places, $3.7 million, $43.8 million, four weeks. 9. “Hunter Killer” moved down four places, $3.5 million, $12.9 million, two weeks. opening. 10. “The Hate U Give” slipped down four places, $3.4 million, $23.4 million, five weeks.
Unreel, Nov. 9:
“The Grinch,” PG: Yarrow Cheney and Scott Mosier direct the voice talents of Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Angela Lansbury and Kenan Thompson in the Animation Comedy. It’s a retelling of the Dr. Seuss tale about the grumpy Grinch who plots to ruin Christmas in the village of Whoville.
“The Girl in the Spider’s Web,” R: Fede Alvarez directs Claire Foy, Sylvia Hoeks, Lakeith Stanfield and Stephen Merchant in the Crime Thriller. Computer hacker Lisbeth Salander and journalist Mikael Blomkvist are back, caught in a web of spies, cybercriminals and corrupt government officials. David Lagercrantz wrote the book of the same title based on characters in the “Millenium” series created by Stieg Larsson, who died in 2004. The film is a followup to David Fincher’s 2011 film, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” but is billed as a reboot of the film series.
“The Front Runner,” R: Jason Reitman directs Hugh Jackman, Vera Farmiga, J.K. Simmons, and Mark O’Brien in the Biography Drama. United States Senator Gary Hart’s presidential bid is sunk in 1968 by an alleged extramarital love affair.
Three Popcorn Boxes out of Five Popcorn Boxes