Judge Daryl Loomis hosts an underground radio show to keep his listeners abreast of his cats.
The rise of free expression on the airwaves.
These days, radio is a wasteland of intolerable music and fat blowhards screaming garbage at listeners. It wasn't always that way, though; people for decades would crowd around the radio as a family, little kids would listen to their serials when they were supposed to be asleep and, of course, countless musical acts became legends through the medium. But one of those aforementioned blowhards took his late night pulpit and changed the game, opening people's eyes to the cultural and political power of the airwaves. His name was Bob Fass and his show aired on New York's WBAI, off and on, for over fifty years. The name of that program is now the title of a new documentary that tells that unlikely story, Radio Unnameable.
The story of Bob Fass is an interesting one, a reminder of the days before the airwaves were controlled by a couple of companies and there was something of a Wild West feel to it all. Add into that the spirit of the mid-1960s and Fass's own willingness to say whatever he wanted whenever he wanted and there is a definite sense that, at least for a while, anything was permitted at WBAI.
Extensive interviews with Fass himself, as well as icons of the day like Abby Hoffman, Arlo Guthrie, and Wavy Gravy, tell the story of this stream of consciousness programming and all the political and social actions they were able to arrange with Fass's late night listeners. Archival footage of both the video and audio variety gives a first-hand account of their stories and, combined, directors Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson paint a very coherent picture of this time and place.
Radio Unnameable is more an interest piece, though, than essential piece of history. For people who lived through the times, I'm sure it's a nice trip down memory lane, but for me, it might as well be the historical account of Car Talk, with an added element of politics giving the story a little more of an air of importance. It's a well-made film, but one of limited interest.
Radio Unnameable arrives on DVD from Kino Lorber in a better than expected release for a documentary. No doubt, the scores of archival footage make the overall image a mixed affair, but the new footage, all of it 1.78:1 anamorphic, looks very solid. The rest really depends on its age and origins, but none of it is unwatchable. The sound is about the same, pretty average but perfectly listenable. With all the classic music in the movie, I would have preferred a stereo mix with a little more dynamic range, but it's not a deal-breaker.
For fans of the documentary or the subject, the disc really excels in the supplements. Much of it is in the form of additional footage of Fass, but that should be no problem for anyone. They begin with a series of deleted scenes that gives more of the same as found in the movie, which are worth watching but inessential to the film. Some archival footage gives a little broader of a perspective on Fass, including a really irritating complete episode of the New York public access The Coca Crystal Show from election night 1992, that will probably prove nostalgic for people familiar with it but, for me, just made me feel hatred. Next a whole bunch of archival audio from the show is interesting to listen to while a short animated music video is totally worthless. Finally, a very short film showing Fass today and a trailer close out the disc.
The main audience for Radio Unnameable is those who lived through the heart of the show and Bob Fass' influence. For them, this is an essential piece of nostalgia. For everybody else, it's still a good film about a piece of history that many who didn't experience it first-hand have never heard, which makes it good, though not great, and for the, a mild recommendation.
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