Discovering new music is one of the rites of passage of growing up. From hearing about different types of music from cooler older classmates to just searching on a computer, finding songs and bands that seem to be just for you is one of the most exciting parts of your teenage years. New Wave: Dare to be Different is a look back at Long Island radio station WLIR and its impact on the American music scene.
The documentary gets off to a rocky start. Many former employees of WLIR talk about the many bands they were the first radio station in America to play. At first, it is believable. Iconic British bands like The Cure, The Smiths, and Echo and the Bunnymen are mentioned. When legendary musicians like Madonna and Prince are name dropped however, it is clear that Dare to be Different looks at WLIR with rose tinted glasses.
This is not to say that the documentary is bad or the claims of the people interviewed are inexcusable. It makes sense the former employees would look back fondly at their time at the station. It is also understandable to be proud of many of the accomplishments of WLIR. And make no mistake about it, WLIR did play music that was not heard on Top 40 radio stations. At a time most radio stations were playing Stairway to Heaven on a seemingly endless loop, WLIR was not afraid to have a reggae hour or play bands like Talking Heads.
One of the highlights of Dare to be Different is the number of musicians interviewed. Joan Jett, Debbie Harry of Blondie, Vince Clarke of Erasure, Billy Idol, and Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran are just a sampling of names who speak on the documentary. It is interesting to hear their take on the burgeoning genre and the future of music.
The interviews also highlight one of the biggest problems of Dare to be Different. When it is discussing the music, the documentary is insightful, engaging, and nostalgic. Many times, documentaries have trouble getting the proper licenses, so the songs they used end up being knockoffs that are borderline parody. Dare to be Different uses many of the songs it is talking about. This adds to the stories being told and will even make many wonder if the music of the early 1980s was the greatest ever.
When Dare to be Different focuses on WLIR, things become uninteresting and boring. The people who worked at the radio station clearly loved their job. This passion leads to exaggerations that at best are contradictory (early in the documentary the comment is made that before U2 released 1987’s The Joshua Tree, WLIR was the only station to champion them; later the documentary shows the band playing at 1985’s Live Aid in front of 72,000 people.) and at worse are ridiculous (WLIR is partially responsible for the birth of MTV). Interviews with fans of the radio station are pointless and it is very telling when an interview with Jett ends with her telling one of the former DJs of WLIR that it is “possible” some of what he says is true.
Editing is also a major problem of Dare to be Different. The documentary is filled with odd cuts. Talking head segments are not cut off at the proper moment leaving viewers watching laughter or uncomfortable silence. Other times a string of interviews will be shown with no clear connection between them. Sometimes, it is as if the documentary is just trying to show off how many people were interviewed.
The most noticeable flaw is the seeming lack of direction. It is hard to tell if Dare to be Different is about a radio station or a type of music. Long periods of time will be spent talking about one topic before abruptly switching to the other. Initially, the aim seems to be to show how WLIR was ahead of the times and grew with the music. When the last third of the movie is spent talking about the station with no mention of the music, it is very confusing.
New Wave: Dare to be Different is an example of a good idea in theory but not practice. A history of the post punk movement of the early 1980s would have been interesting. The story of how a small radio station in Long Island decided to change their format to match the change would also be worth watching. Unfortunately, hyperbole and lack of focus take away from what should be an enjoyable experience. But, man, the music sure is awesome.