Back in 1984, in the dawn of the video age, when shooting with a “portable” VHS camera package meant lugging around two hefty briefcase-sized units and a cumbersome camera roughly the same size as one of today’s Betacam ENG cameras, San Angelo, TX-based video pioneer Steve Glenn set out to do a feature film in this relatively new format. As so often happens, Glenn never finished “Radio Free Steve,” his campy, ultra low-budget, post apocalyptic “Mad Max”-ish knock-off.
Fast-forward to 1999, when filmmaker Lars Von Biers stumbled across Glenn at the letter’s tape duplicating business. There, Von Biers learned of Glenn’s uncompleted opus gradually disintegrating on its original 3/4″ pneumatic videotapes and put him in touch with Ugh! Films. A few strategically placed pick-up shots, a slick new soundtrack, and the beauty of digital non-linear editing has at last enabled Glenn to bring his mid-80s video time capsule to completion.
The story centers on Steve (Glenn), an uncouth arrested-adolescent loudmouth who also happens to be the last of the pirate radio broadcasters still on the air following the 1989 outbreak of WWIII. While the resurgent remnants of the FCC have shut down the rest of the radio renegades, Steve criss-crosses the nation’s desert wastelands with his sometimes girlfriend Sheena (Jessy Schwartz), broadcasting several times a day from the transmitter mounted inside his beat-up van and dodging the persistent pursuit of former pirate turned FCC operative Dirk (Chris Sykes). During an overnight stop at his flamboyant friend Bruce’s (Bruce Beesley) friendly compound, Bruce shows Steve an abbreviated music video clip and tells him that he’ll only find a civilization so sophisticated in Los Angeles. Following a betrayal lifted straight from the Lando Calrissian Cloud City scene in “The Empire Strikes Back,” Steve and Sheena are back on the run, barely a step ahead of his black-clad, Z28-driving nemesis.
“Radio Free Steve” works best in a crowded room full of at least partially inebriated viewers who are capable of enjoying the film’s cheesy effects, inherent campiness, well-timed celebrity cameos, and unintended value as a 1980s time capsule. Rude, crude and lewd, the video is an at times shocking throwback to a decade far less obsessed, for better or worse, with political correctness. While the filmmakers have done a decent job plugging the gaps and coming up with a passable way to rationalize the inclusion of modern footage, nothing in this video works better than the bookend interview scenes of Glenn today, hard at work at his tape duplication facility.
Had this video been produced today, it would have been just another geeky action parody. Knowing the torturous sixteen year path the video took to complete, however, best personified by Glenn, compels one to give it the benefit of the doubt in deference to its makers’ persistence. If nothing else, “Radio Free Steve” is a raw and spectacular train wreck of a video that’s far more entertaining than the bland, homogenized broadcasting emanating from our airwaves today.