Criterion // 1987 // 83 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Bryan Pope (Retired) // January 16th, 2007
"They sounded really rough, but in those days you gave a band a chance. These days all they want is professionalism. They'll boo you off the stage if you aren't slick enough."
From the outset, Border Radio seems an unlikely candidate for Criterion consideration. A grainy, black-and-white time capsule of the punk rock subculture in Reagan-era L.A.? Written and directed by a trio of UCLA film students? Leave it to Criterion to surprise us by turning this mostly forgettable early effort into a tribute to independent filmmaking through a spruced up picture and impressive, meaty extras.
Thugs are looking for Jeff (Chris D.), a musician who has robbed an L.A. nightclub with two friends and split. Only his wife, journalist Luanna (Luanna Anders) knows his whereabouts, and she ain't talking. But after playing single mom and fielding calls from the record label that is producing Jeff's first album, it isn't long before Luanna is on a road trip to Mexico to bring Jeff back home.
Border Radio wants to be a romance, a road movie, a caper, a crime movie and noir. That's a tall order, and the film succeeds as none of these. What it does do, though, is serve as a snapshot of a very specific era that few filmmakers cared to document. Love it or hate it, Border Radio is ambitious and incapable of being pigeonholed. If only it worked better than it does.
Allison Anders, Dean Lent and Kurt Voss were so enamored with the grungy L.A. punk rock scene and the hard sounds that emerged from it -- the Flesh Eaters, the Blasters, X -- that they built a screenplay around it. It's all here: the seedy clubs, the struggling musicians, their slack-jawed roadies and devoted groupies, the fringe rock journalists. The period is well observed. The filmmakers get most of the details right (check out the fliers for L.A. punk bands), but not all of them. Even Anders, in one of the two excellent commentaries provided here, chuckles over bands having a garage rehearsal in full makeup and wardrobe.
Shooting took four years, finally wrapping in 1987. Allison Anders' daughter, who has a small role in the film, practically grew up during the production. If that doesn't qualify this as a labor of love, I don't know what does. Anders and company began with $2,000 in seed money provided by actor Vic Tayback (TV's Alice). The remainder was funded by cash gifts and loans. In true indie fasion, the film was shot entirely on location in southern California. Editing took place in the UCLA editing bays after hours, against school policy.
Anders and Voss cut their filmmaking teeth as production assistants on Wim Wenders's Paris, Texas, which makes their film, with its bare and desolate landscapes, a natural progression. They're skilled at setting up shots. Border Radio has a number of gorgeous sequences that vibrate with a distinctive south-of-the-border flavor. And they texture their story by drawing from the punk rock world. Naturally, the soundtrack is peppered with songs from the era, with a cool score from Dave Alvin of the Blasters. But look at that cast. Chris D. was from the Flesh Eaters, and John Doe was leader of the rock band X. Texacala Jones, frontwoman for Tex & the Horseheads, and Iris Berry of girl-group Ringling Sisters also appear.
There's the problem. The directors may have earned indie cred by casting rockers, but they missed out on potentially compelling performances by bypassing trained actors. Dialogue among the male leads falls flat, and their faces lack expression. One gamble that does pay off is director Anders' sister, Luanna. As Jeff's harried wife, she has a natural presence and vulnerability that hasn't been encroached upon by years of acting lessons. She's obviously an amateur, but she has a gentle beauty that the camera loves, and she's the one saving grace in the cast.
As good as she is, she can't help the film overcome its Death Valley pacing. Border Radio has a few too many unnecessary characters and far too many scenes that overstay their welcome. One wishes the filmmakers had tightened the film in spots.
Border Radio's three directors have since moved on to bigger and mostly better projects. Anders became one of the more important female directorial voices of the '90s with Gas Food Lodging, Grace of My Heart and Things Behind the Sun. Voss also continued directing (most notably the girl group film Down and Out with the Dolls), and Lent became a cinematographer.
Border Radio is presented in its original 1.33:1 ratio in a transfer that, according to the liner notes, has been approved by Voss and Lent. The film was shot by student filmmakers more than 20 years ago in 16mm black and white, so set your expectations low. It contains quite a few scratches and much debris, but one look at the almost unwatchable deleted scenes (see below) tells you it has been scrubbed considerably.
The mono soundtrack contains quite a bit of background noise, but dialogue is still audible. Under this film's circumstances, it's not bad. English subtitles are included.
It's in the extras department that this disc earns its stripes. Included are two feature-length audio commentaries, one with codirectors Anders and Voss, the other with cast members Anders, Chris D., Dave Alvin, Doe and Chris Shearer. Anders and Voss are a fun, articulate pair, and their commentary is the strongest. They cover the expected ground regarding financing an independent film, but their most interesting stories revolve around the Los Angeles punk subculture. Not all of the participants in the cast commentary were recorded together, but you'd almost never know. Because of all the individuals involved, there's hardly a lull. They're an engaging bunch, laughing at the dates '80s styles (Mullets! Androgynous glam rock!), their own performances and some of the movie's flaws.
The featurette, The Making of "Border Radio", runs about 15 minutes and features interviews conducted in 2002 with Anders, Lent, Voss, Doe and Chris D. All five reflect on their complete lack of experience making Border Radio, and one detects a hint of astonishment that they were able to complete the film. All involved are as likeable and good-humored here as they are on the commentaries, making this a pleasant watch.
Only one of the nine deleted scenes is essential viewing, and that's an extended conversation between Luanna and Jeff. The scenes are in very poor condition, marred by scratches and dirt.
The package also includes the Flesh Eaters' "The Wedding Dice" music video, a stills gallery, the original theatrical trailer, cast and crew bios, a radio spot that takes an interesting approach to advertising a film, and extensive liner notes by music journalist and critic Chris Morris.
Border Radio is one of Criterion's more perplexing selections, and the film is too slight to bear repeat viewings, but the DVD package is top drawer.
I can't recommend the film, but Criterion acquits itself with another handsome release.
Review content copyright © 2007 Bryan Pope; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 83 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director commentary
* Cast commentary
* The Making of "Border Radio"
* Deleted scenes
* "The Wedding Dice" music video
* Stills gallery
* Theatrical trailer
* Radio spot
* Cast and crew bios
* Liner notes