I’d say that the most striking thing about VH1’s new TV movie Warning: Parental Advisory is that it gives such disparate performers as Mariel Hemingway, Griffin Dunne, and Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider the best roles of their careers. But maybe striking ain’t the word: Hemingway (deployed over the years for her blank beauty) has kept a pretty low profile recently, and Dunne (underrated, sly) has always acted as if his career were a throwaway gesture anyway. And having Dee Snider play Dee Snider in a telefilm about the mid-1980s controversy over record warning labels seems less like an example of clever casting than a suspicion that there was a gaping hole in Snider’s 2002 touring schedule.
So instead, I’ll say the most striking thing about ”Warning” is how it manages to be cavalier and shrewd about the cynicism involved in both sides of a controversy that stirred sincere passion nearly two decades ago. Are you old enough to remember the PMRC — the Parents’ Music Resource Center, formed by leader Tipper Gore (Hemingway plays her) and some women who were usually referred to as ”Washington wives,” such as Susan Baker (married to then secretary of the treasury James A. Baker and played here by Lois Chiles)? The movie retells the legend of how Gore, whose husband, Al, was then a senator, heard a song by The Artist Then Mercifully Known Simply as Prince (the tune was ”Darling Nikki”) and was appalled that her young children were exposed to lyrics referring playfully to masturbation.
Investigating the rock & roll cesspool, Gore discovered that there were innumerable naughty or downright obscene things being said beneath the roar of electric guitars. She and her allies — presented here as a ditzy kaffeeklatsch given to complimenting each other on their gloves before choking on petits fours upon hearing heavy metal nobodies like W.A.S.P. and the Mentors — resolved to do something official about it.
If the Washington wives are presented in ”Warning” as laughable prisses, the government they appeal to is depicted as a corrupt joke. A fictional music-industry lobbyist played with energetic cockiness by Jason Priestley is on the verge of passing a tax on blank recording tapes, which would result in millions of dollars for the big record companies. To Priestley’s Charlie Burner, the PMRC is a headache — he wants to slide his bill into law, and the PMRC’s crusade against so-called porn rock may call unwanted attention to his controversial tax. He tries to control the Senate hearing that the PMRC provokes by cozying up to the rock musicians scheduled to testify, including Dunne’s Frank Zappa (the late Mother of Invention is depicted as a dyspeptic egomaniac), John Denver (the late singer is played by Tim Guinee as a smiley-face folkie who resents his high-on-life anthem ”Rocky Mountain High” being targeted years earlier), and Snider, who — well, who plays himself: an affably profane showboater who lucked into having his band’s goofy video for ”We’re Not Gonna Take It” become an MTV mainstay.
In other words, no person or institution comes off well in ”Warning,” which in TV terms lends the enterprise integrity. Written by Jay Martel (Comedy Central’s ”Strangers With Candy”) and directed by Mark Waters (”The House of Yes”), the film tries to be archly satiric in the manner of Michael Ritchie’s superlative 1993 TV movie ”The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom,” but it contains too many easy jokes.
Even if it really occurred, the scene in which the wives try to come up with a name and realize that the acronym for one suggestion, Parents’ Music Symposium, would be PMS, is a groaner. Elsewhere, Al (played by an appropriately stiff Jim Beatty) rebuffs Tipper in bed, saying he’s too tired. Later on, immersed in PMRC research, Tipper says no to Al: The sexual tables are turned, get it — get it? ”Warning” is always poking you in the ribs like this. At a time when former PMRC target Ozzy Osbourne is presiding over the most admirable depiction of family life on reality TV, ”Warning: Parental Advisory” can seem irrelevant.
But even irrelevancy has its own reward. In this case, stay tuned for the closing credits. During them, the actors break character and sing along to ”We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Hemingway, still in a tight Tipper skirt, gyrates in her stockinged feet atop a conference table. She’s sexier — more alive on screen — than she’s ever been, even when she played Playboy Playmate Dorothy Stratten in Bob Fosse’s ’83 film ”Star 80.” As critic Greil Marcus wrote about the PMRC at the time, ”restrictions and limits…can lead the music to reinvent itself, to discover secret languages.” At the end of ”Warning,” Hemingway hears the secret language of Twisted Sister, and reinvents herself — for a few seconds, she doesn’t take it anymore.