Our review of Radio Days (1987) (Blu-ray), published August 21st, 2014, is also available.
"There are those who drink champagne at nightclubs, and us who listen to them drink champagne on the radio."—Mother (Julie Kavner)
What is nostalgia? How much of our memory of history is real, and how much filtered through desire? Woody Allen plays with memory and popular media in his warmly comic Radio Days.
Facts of the Case
These are the stories of the days of radio. The time is childhood, and young Joe (Seth Green) brings us (from the perspective of his older, "wiser" self voiced by Woody Allen) into his Brighton Beach home. But these are not merely the stories of his family—Father (Michael Tucker) and his get-rich-quick schemes, Aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) and her quest for a husband, and the others. There are the stories they hear on the radio, like the Masked Avenger (Wallace Shawn), whose decoder ring Joe must have at all costs. And there are the stories of those behind the radio microphones, like the legend of Sally White (Mia Farrow) and her climb to stardom. Happy stories, and sad stories—but stories worth telling.
Harlan Ellison writes, in his darkly comic story "Jeffty Is Five," "Things may be better, but why do I keep thinking about the past?" Nostalgia: the past that haunts us. It is not the real past, wherever that may have gone. The stories we hear in Radio Days are familiar—Bea's date is interrupted by an "radio bulletin" suspiciously like Orson Welles' 1938 War of the Worlds debacle—but like Leonard Zelig's encounters with the famous of history, this is history distorted through the funhouse mirror of modern media, reinterpreted through desire. The radio in Radio Days transforms desire into objects. Through it, Joe can fantasize about adventure (becoming one of the Masked Avenger's agents, spotting U-boats off the coast, and so on) and Bea can dance the night away. Modern media provides the entire family with an escape valve, hope for a future away from the mundane existence of wartime America. Ruth listens in on the telephone party line to the neighbors' gossip; Father jumps at every chance to market some new gadget in the spirit of capitalistic success.
There are hints of change in the outside world, of course. World War II lurks in the background. The neighbors flirt with Communism, and the rabbi collects money for a future Jewish state (not knowing the tumultuous course Jewish history will take from the war onward). But we are always brought back to the power of modern media. The shows, the songs, and the stories.
And, oh, those stories. Especially, the story of Sally White, from lowly cigarette girl carrying on an affair with the dapper radio personality Roger (David Warrilow), to her connection to the notorious gangster Rocco (Danny Aiello), to her eventual success as a society gossip. Don't we just love stories about the poor girl made good? Or even stories of tragedy, which can help pull us all together in empathy, like the fate of little Polly Phelps and her tragic fall into a well.
Radio Days is not about real history. This is the simplified world of a child's memories—although Joe is no naïve waif—and it is largely remembered with fondness. While Ellison's story noted above may ultimately argue that nostalgia blinds us, Woody Allen does not seem interested in exposing the "hypocrisy of simulation" or some such cliché about our immersion in popular culture. Frankfurt School theorists may find themselves at a loss at Woody's warm embrace of middle-class capitalist media. The film begins with an amusing story of burglars sidetracked on night by a phone call from "Guess That Tune." The next day, the family awakens to find their house robbed, but a driveway full of prizes won for them by the hapless burglars. In the end, the magic of popular media rewards its loyal followers, and everyone lives comfortably ever after.
Woody Allen has a difficult job in structuring this film around a series of anecdotes only loosely chronological in their order (the film's timeline runs roughly from the late 1930s until New Year's 1944, with the war still raging and the future uncertain), and in the hands of a less-able screenwriter, this film might have been a structural mess. But the rambling nature of the film ties in nicely with the sense that the narrator is merely another storyteller, conjuring whatever ghosts come most quickly to mind. Stories within stories within stories. How many of these things are true? Did Sally White really go from local girl to cultured star? Or does it even matter, if the stories are good enough on their own?
The cast bounces through the picture, clearly having fun with their caricatured roles. Mia Farrow has the task of playing a semi-talented bubblehead, and it is a testament to her genuine acting skill that she generates our sympathy for Sally White. And the usual Woody Allen crowd shows off their traditional collection of neurosis, here played for laughs. The quick pace of the film's episodes helps amplify the need for impeccable comic timing, and this is one of those Woody Allen films where everything seems to fall right into place.
We have come to expect a certain level of performance from MGM on these Woody Allen discs. In this case, the mono soundtrack is perfectly suited to the film, given the predominance of old music and voice-over dialogue. Any radio static or hissy old records that play in the background enhance the nostalgic feel of the film. Unfortunately, the anamorphic transfer seems to have made the film a bit dark and created some muddy and slightly overenhanced coloring (particularly the reds). This may add to the cartoony look of the film, but it does get somewhat annoying. And, as always, no extra content is offered other than some production notes and a faded trailer.
One of Woody Allen's more entertaining and accessible films, Radio Days should play well even for viewers who normally find his work self-indulgent or overstylized. Woody takes himself much less seriously here, and everyone seems to be having a good time. Ultimately, Radio Days is a witty look back at the popular culture that made us what we are today. And we wouldn't have had it any other way.
Woody Allen and company are acquitted, and the court toasts their success with a slipper full of champagne. MGM is ordered into the screening room to watch their own catalog of classics until they learn to appreciate, and take some care with, this film and some of their other more recent classics.
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• Theatrical Trailer
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