The CB radio craze is at its peak and everyone is known by their handle, an alias which helps them to be readily identified as well as, for some, preserving their anonymity, which is handy for someone like Electra who gets off on chatting up the teenage Warlock and turning him on with her saucy talk. But it's not simply a form of entertainment, as information is broadcast over the airwaves as well, though not all of it beneficial, as there are always the cranks to contend with, spewing white supremacist hate or Bible-bashing religion to anyone within earshot. However, for electrician Spider (Paul Le Mat) it can be a lifeline too, for he runs a help station which picks up distress signals...
The equivalent of Citizens Band nowadays would be a movie about folks communicating over the internet, though that would not just stick with one corner of Nebraska as its location as this newer phenomenon would span the globe, making for storylines too big to grapple into one film. Mobile phones would appear to be a modern substitute for much of the CB technology screenwriter Paul Brickman (best known for Risky Business) wove his plot around, and would have certainly made his finale a lot easier to manage, but there isn't quite the same sense of community to sending text messages as there was to turning the dial late at night and connecting with someone out there.
It was this camaraderie that director Jonathan Demme was hoping to cash in on, yet while his graduation from basic genre thrillers to something more character based and lightly humorous here did lead to many of his most acclaimed works, the audience for Citizens Band (with a double meaning in the title) was small, as perhaps they were expecting a broader comedy like Smokey and the Bandit which this was assuredly not. After this had great reviews but still didn't conjure up any major business, Paramount renamed it Handle with Care (another double meaning, but a lot clunkier this time) and re-edited it to make it snappier, whereupon... it didn't bring in the crowds either, leaving a cult film for those who followed Demme's career with interest.
In many ways this was a dry run for Demme's other Paul Le Mat movie of three years later, and probably his masterpiece, Melvin and Howard, in that his leading man was portraying much the same type of personality in much the same milieu, only without the "based on a true story" tag which gave it greater resonance. But while it was rather fuzzy round the edges, don't dismiss Citizens Band as it featured gently amusing narratives, not episodic exactly but definitely more of a ramble through its subject's lives, and every cast member was well aware of what was necessary to bring out the laughs and indeed the unexpected sweetness, mostly centered on Spider's troubles with his elderly father (Roberts Blossom) who basically only communicates over his CB.
The way the CB was introduced as a plot point did feel as contrived as the many times movies since have depicted the internet, perhaps making more of it than was necessary, but at least the theme of making contact was brought out, and that means bringing all those quirks in your demeanour to the fore should you decide you want to be part of someone's life for a while, even if only for a few minutes to stave off any loneliness or create a little companionship to pass the time. Spider goes on a crusade to stop perpetrators misusing the CB, tracking down signals and preventing the criminals from broadcasting more, yet we can tell he blocks out the need to communicate with the three people he has trouble reaching out to, and it's a two-way street between him and his father, sports coach brother (Bruce McGill) and the woman he loves (Candy Clark) but has never been able to make a breakthrough with. More daffily, Charles Napier proved his worth as a bigamist whose wives meet by chance, but even the comedy of that contained the poignancy running through Citizens Band. Music by Bill Conti.
American director with a exploitation beginnings who carved out a successful Hollywood career as a caring exponent of a variety of characters. Worked in the early 70s as a writer on films like Black Mama, White Mama before directing his first picture for producer Roger Corman, the women-in-prison gem Caged Heat. Demme's mainstream debut was the 1977 CB drama Handle With Care (aka Citizens Band), which were followed by such great films as the thriller Last Embrace, tenderhearted biopic Melvin and Howard, wartime drama Swing Shift, classic Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, and black comedies Something Wild and Married to the Mob.
Demme's Thomas Harris adaptation The Silence of the Lambs was one of 1991's most successful films, making Hannibal Lecter a household name, while the worthy AIDS drama Philadelphia was equally popular. Since then, Demme has floundered somewhat - Beloved and The Truth About Charlie were critical and commercial failures, although 2004's remake of The Manchurian Candidate was a box office hit. Rachel Getting Married also has its fans, though Meryl Streep vehicle Ricki and the Flash was not a great one to go out on. He was also an advocate of the documentary form, especially music: his final release was a Justin Timberlake concert.