At the get-go, “Warning: Parental Advisory” mixes news footage of the 1986 congressional hearings about rock music’s lyrical content with images of the fictional players involved in VH1’s dreadful retelling of a silly chapter in rock’s annals. The juxtaposition of images suggests that what viewers are about to see is only a reasonable facsimile of the truth, and indeed, that’s precisely what happens: Characters are invented, important players deleted, events rearranged and the cause-effect relationship of all things D.C. thrown out of whack. The telefilm is purported to be a comedy, and yet what is laughable here is hardly intended — the script structure, the lust-filled eyes of leads Deborah Yates and Jason Priestley, and a record store scene in which the dialogue is the only thing worse than the acting. Griffin Dunne’s sharp turn as Frank Zappa goes for naught as does Mark Waters’ expeditious direction, which actually manages to make the hearings appear interesting.
Jay Martel’s script skims the surface of this once-heated subject that resulted in the placement, by the record companies themselves, of “parental advisory” stickers on recorded music products. That’s part of the ludicrous nature of this story — for all the battling and headline-grabbing that went on, not to mention ill will stirred up between D.C. and the diskeries, those stickers were essentially what the music industry offered before the fur really got flying.
Nowhere in VH1’s version of the story, though, are the real players: former Recording Industry Assn. of America prexy Stanley Gortikov, who represented the major labels, or Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), whose political correctness and lack of musical knowledge were the comical highlight of the hearings.
A fictional subplot involves lobbyist Charlie Burner (Priestley), who is working on getting Congress to approve a blank-tape tax. He is the record biz’s mouthpiece and frontline soldier in this free-speech argument. Moments after Pamela Stone (Yates) joins the effort, he begins working on her but she won’t date him, although their locked-in gazes say otherwise.
Concurrently, Tipper Gore (played unassumingly by Mariel Hemingway) is suddenly concerned that her pre-teen daughter is listening to music that deals with sexual issues; in between compliments about tea and handbags, Gore and some women friends swap thoughts on Twisted Sister, Prince and Madonna at lunch. They dub it “porn rock,” form a group to fight for censorship and name it the Parents Music Resource Committee — based on the advice of a pizza-delivery man — and immediately get attention due to their connections to elected officials. (Much more could have — and should have — been made of this political clout forged in bedrooms.) “Warning” successfully conveys the dizzying whirlwind in which the women of the PMRC find themselves as the media gloms on to the story.
As both sides verbally snipe at each other, “Warning” telegraphs its every move. It creates a narrative fugue so obvious that anyone familiar with the story will scream — the banality of scenes when Burner goes to a record store, for example, will elicit a similar reaction because the poor writing collides with some forced acting.
“Warning,” in the name of drama one supposes, juggles the order of the musicians who addressed the congressional committee on rock lyrics, though the filmmakers at least retain the flavor of the three musicians’ speeches. John Denver (Tim Guinee) did make a point about censorship that startles the “Rocky Mountain High”-loving senators and Dee Snider, playing himself, did launch into an “I am a Christian” discourse that bewildered the elderly gentlemen on the panel who were baffled by Snider’s apparel and hair.
Coda of the story — that yesterday’s liberals will be confronted by art that they feel is inappropriate — works nicely for those who can identify the music of Eminem. Otherwise, it’s just another parent telling kids to turn down the music. A better narrative device would have been to tell this from the point of view of, say, Zappa or even Snider (who doesn’t look that much older than he was in the mid-’80s).
Hemingway is a convincing Gore, particularly at the saga’s end, when she’s in way over her head. Burner, as played by Priestley, is so easy-going with no signs of being slimy that it’s unlikely he would have worked as a lobbyist or in the record biz. Guinee gives a typical aw-shucks rendition Denver; Jim Beatty, as Al Gore, and the other actors play the politicians as stereotypically stuffy.
Review cassette was not a final cut and had no music except for Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” which closes the telepic with the actors breaking character to lip-synch the song with abandon.