Woody Allen continues his New York love affair with an ambitious, affectionate – though only occasionally affecting – tribute to the golden age of radio with Radio Days (1987). The film is a very loose series of ruminations cribbed from Allen’s own fertile childhood memories. These are made misty-watered and rose-colored with the inevitable passage of time. All of them involve the radio in one way or another; the power of memory to be clouded by art and vice versa playing a big part in Allen’s opus magnum dedicated to this far simpler time. Woody Allen’s film-making is so irreproachable in so many ways it almost seems sacrilegious to pick apart Radio Days’ failings; chiefly, its queer inability to linger in the mind once the houselights have come up. But it just doesn’t have the staying power of a bona fide Woody Allen classic.
Like all of Allen’s New York fairy tales, Radio Days does appear genuine and autobiographical – Allen’s nostalgic memoir gleaned from a rich and varied tapestry of personalized reflections he so clearly regards as more intimate and meaningful than the present, and, using his own particular brand of self-deprecating Yiddish humor to palliate even uncomfortable reminiscences. Creative geniuses working in the cinema are rare. But Allen has proven the most prolific from the latter half of the 20th century. The challenge for Allen in Radio Days is to visualize a non-visual medium. Alas, he never quite licks it, perhaps because Allen has chosen to remain omnipotent in this loving valentine as its narrator; Seth Green, his prepubescent alter ego – Joe – never able to capture the essence of Allen’s own persona as the gawky, perennially befuddled and disillusioned social outcast.
In fairness to Green, he doesn’t have much of a part in this ensemble piece; Joe chronically relegated to the back of the line; getting beaned in the head by his otherwise benevolent father (Michael Tucker), nasally sounding, mother (Julie Kavner) and even the bitter and dictatorial, Rabbi Baumel (Kenneth Mars). It’s a thankless part, meant to illustrate for the audience the Freudian roots of Allen’s own emasculated sense of self. But Radio Days is starved by Allen’s absence. Without his tangible presence, there is no central character to follow, much less root for from beginning to end. Mia Farrow’s hapless cigarette girl and aspiring radio personality, Sally White is meant to provide this narrative continuity; Allen returning to White’s mindless plight time and again. But even Sally infrequently gets lost in Allen’s cavalcade of remembrances; having nothing to do with Joe’s family and fragmenting Allen’s already severely episodic claptrap even further.
There’s nothing wrong with the vignettes as vignettes, per say: young Joe and his pals pretending to collect charitable contributions for Palestine, but instead using the money to buy secret compartment rings as advertised on the radio by his favorite personality - the Masked Avenger (Wallace Shawn); Sally’s brief flagrante delicto with radio ham, Roger (David Warrilow) atop a nightclub, only to be locked on the rooftop in a thunderstorm; cousin Ruthie’s (Joy Newman) charming lip-synch to Carmen Miranda’s Tico Tico; Uncle Abe’s (Josh Mostel) confrontation with the neighbors who disregard the holiest of Jewish holidays by playing the radio too loud, result in a crisis of faith and a hilariously imagined heart attack; Joe and his schoolmates using a carrot to make an anatomically correct snowman in front of the school, and later, ogling a naked woman through an open window with binoculars, only to meet her the next day – with her clothes on – as their substitute teacher, Miss Gordon (Sydney A. Blake).
No kidding, Radio Days is an ensemble piece. But the characters who populate this story – or rather, ‘stories’ are mostly undefined – or rather, under-defined; a curious cross section of distracting, though weirdly unsympathetic eccentrics. Mia Farrow’s trusting nightclub doll cum radio wit is the most prominently featured; Allen habitually deferring to Sally White’s rumored past for sheer amusement whenever he paints himself into a narrative corner. White begins as a bored and put upon cigarette girl at a swank art deco nightclub, the plaything of self-appointed radio ham, Roger - of Irene (Julie Kurnitz) and Roger fame. Later, Sally inadvertently witnesses the murder of her boss, pitied by mafia hit man, Rocco (Danny Aiello) who takes her back to his mother’s (Gina DeAngeles) for a ‘last supper’ as it were’ as mum and sonny boy openly discussing where to dump Sally’s body. Alas, Rocco’s heart isn’t in it. So Sally lives to become a USO singer, and later, a prominent radio gossip columnist, exposing tidbits about Hollywood’s hoi poloi. Interpolated with Sally’s fantastic tale of succession is Allen’s more intimate portrait of home life in Rockaway Beach; herein depicted as perpetually rainy, gray and windswept; echoing Joe’s family, who have apparently gone to seed.
Joe’s aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest), as example, is a star-crossed frump and daydreamer whose ever-changing high standards keep her a spinster. Bea has the most deplorable taste in men: like Mr. Waldbaum (Hy Anzell) who leaves her stranded in a car out of gas and six miles from home (in a dense fog no less), after panicking while listening to Orson Welles’ broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. There’s also dapper Fred (Robert Joy), who breaks down in the kitchen and confesses to Bea he is still mourning the loss of his beloved spouse – Leonard! Joe’s uncle, Abe has a ‘fish’ fetish, while Joe’s teenage cousin, Ruthie is addicted to eavesdropping on the neighbor’s party line; learning all sorts of salacious scraps about their communist activity and the wife’s hysterectomy. Joe’s family is, in fact, a lovable circus to behold.
Too bad Radio Days isn’t about any one of these characters in particular, or even all of them put together. It’s Woody Allen’s homage to the golden era of radio quiz shows, soap operas and the big band sound that so permeated, enlivened and enriched American culture throughout the 1940’s. That’s problematic, because Allen wants us to reinvest and align ourselves with his concept and understanding of this grand and glorious past; a memory only he intimately knows to be true, while philosophizing it as art, but without ever building up any of these characters to make them real and truthful for the rest of us. The audience simply has to take both the story and Woody Allen at face value. Had Allen actually committed to being in this movie it might have worked – or at least, helped. Without his presence – even as the proverbial time traveler, Radio Days starts off as disembodied and thereafter becomes increasingly unsustainable.
For a certain generation, Radio Days will remain a fond evocation of a time sadly no more – mostly because Allen illustrates how the power of imagination – gathering around a dimly glowing green light in the front parlor – gave form to people and places only existing inside our heads. The movies – and later, television – showed us concrete representations of how we aspired to live. But radio made us think it could actually happen; the glamor and celebrity palpable and attainable only from inside our daydreams. Astutely, Allen places a child at the center of this idol worship. No mind is more impressionable than Joe’s. He begins by relaying a story of a neighborhood break-in; the robbers (Mike Starr and Paul Herman) answering the telephone and winning the random caller portion of ‘Name That Tune’ – their victims reaping rich rewards the next day as the grand prizes are delivered to their ransacked home.
From here on, Radio Days bounces around a lot; personal history mingling with the collective memories of a generation hooked on radio programming; Woody Allen showing us how truth can become confused, manipulated and clouded over by fiction. Obviously, the dreamlike quality of radio served a purpose back then; our adolescent woolgatherer able to abscond from his working-class neighborhood into the uber-swank radio realm of a wholly imagined Manhattan. Perhaps, Allen presumes too much, however – jumping back and forth from fable to fact - each more vibrant, but only from the vantage of growing up and leaving it all behind. Fair enough, Allen isn’t particularly interested in creating a linear narrative. Radio Days begins and ends on an element of uncertainty, perhaps to reawaken the adult Joe to the only reality: that time moves incrementally, while memory remains cyclical - made even more perennially appealing when revisited.
Woody Allen has always had a yen for vintage songs, mostly to augment and punctuate his plots. But in Radio Days the robust 40’s milieu – from Tommy Dorsey to Sinatra and Carmen Miranda – serves an entirely different purpose; mostly to provide cohesion where none might otherwise exist as Allen moves through his series of entertainingly silly back-stories. Almost instinctually, Allen knows which characters to shadow in this overflowing ensemble – able to pick up a storyline at will, then just as easily discard it for another, picking it up again at some undisclosed point in the future. Admirably, Radio Days plays like the trick of memory itself – the irretrievable past book-ended by iconic vintage pop tunes. But memory is a curious thing; prone to nostalgia – decidedly never anything less than idealized. We tend to forget all the ugliness and unhappiness gone before yesterday and what resurfaces is fond verisimilitude. In our absent-mindedness visions of family, sexual experience, local folklore, public scandals and religious piety can intermingle like the various decorative threads dangling from a child’s mobile.
Perhaps as part of his nostalgia, Radio Days naturally evolves into a cornucopia of Woody Allen favorites from days – and movies – gone by. Everyone from Mia Farrow and Diane Keaton to Tony Roberts, Dianne Wiest and Jeff Daniels make an appearance; Allen also corralling surviving stars from radio’s golden age - Kitty Carlisle and Don Pardo - to add authenticity and charm plus: the all-important Tiffany setting of his piece. It’s hard to argue with Radio Days as an audacious slice of Woody Allen’s wistfulness for another time and place. Increasingly we all begin to hunger for the past with age, somehow assuming it was better than our own immediate present. And in the luxuriant ambiance of forties kitsch and coo, Allen has an almost inexhaustible wellspring to draw upon and exploit to his own advantage and purposes.
The film’s climax is both poignant and solipsistic; Sally White – now an accomplished radio star, returns to her old haunt to ring in the New Year with a gaggle of fair-weathers whom she takes to the same rooftop where years before she had indulged Roger’s proclivity for a quick one. Allen uses the strange unbalance of anticipation and sadness we all feel on New Year’s Eve to turn the page and close the book on his little pastiche; the characters reluctantly moving away from the old to welcome in the new with giddy uncertainty. But as Allen has pointed out time and again in Radio Days; none of what really happened back then matters; only how we choose to remember it for always in our hearts.
Radio Days gets a fairly robust Blu-ray transfer from MGM/Fox via Twilight Time. Aside from the occasional age-related speckle this hi-def transfer captures the essence of Carlo Di Palma’s warm-hued cinematography. There is a counterbalance of color at play herein; interiors teeming with vibrant canary yellows burnt reds, wood browns and pumpkin oranges while exteriors are mostly cold gray/blue and desaturated. Contrast is solid and film grain has been naturally reproduced without any undue signs of digital manipulation. The DTS 1.0 mono soundtrack is crisp. TT gives us another isolated music and effects track, plus the original theatrical trailer. Julie Kirgo’s essay extols Radio Days’ many virtues. While I cannot fault or deny her persuasive arguments, in the final analysis Radio Days just doesn’t resonate as profoundly, the way a lot of Woody Allen’s best movies do – and all movies in a perfect world should. Recommended; although I hardly consider this Woody Allen at his best.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)