Radio Days (1987)
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Julie Kavner
Release date: January 30 (US). My second ‘Woody’ of the series – heh! – only about two write-ups ago as well. As with Danny Rose, I bypassed this one on release too. May contain a violent rabbi and spoilers…
No synopsis. Well, there’s no plot is there… Allen’s love-letter to growing up to the sound of 1940’s radio is a miss and hit affair. Mixing autobiography with fantasy, Radio Days at turns leadened the peepers, then found me misty-eyed with melancholy. Much of Radio Days revolves around American legend and difficult for a Manc oik like me to latch onto. Having said that, nostalgia surely transcends cultural boundaries; it’s a different soundtrack and a different set of memories but the message will be the same the world over. One thing I did appreciate is the reference to Orson Welles and his alien invasion broadcast. Unfortunately, the segment doesn’t deliver on the promise really – at the prospect of a vigorous anal probing, Aunt Bea’s new bloke abandons his car and buggers off rapid leaving her to walk the 6 miles home alone. I thought it was anti-climactic, but obviously within the framework of the film this scene is only meant to be a single snapshot among many, not a running gag.
Allen narrates a path through the film, seeing through the eyes of his younger self, Joe (Seth Green), absorbing events as the songs play through the changing years. Though predominantly sketch-based, Bea’s (Dianne Wiest) lonely, ever hopeful search for a guy to sweep her away is a common thread throughout Radio Days, as is Sally White’s (Mia Farrow) rise from witless usherette to unlikely radio personality (via getting chucked off a laxative ad). After weeks of dogged self-training, it’s ace hearing Sally’s Brooklyn accent finally turn plummy. During a shindig near the end, in possibly the finest moment of the film, she slips back into the ‘Noo Yoik’ twang for a second when reminded of her humble beginnings. You see one of her new radio friends fire a brief double-take at Sally, then shrug it off. Nice, that. I guess Woody is saying it doesn’t matter where you’re from; if you work hard and you want it bad enough, you can make it happen.
Vignette films must be awkward for actors hoping to develop a role. Their characters don’t need an arc and here, they’re playing memories borne from a young kid’s mind. The memories come at a rush. That’s okay but it’s a little exhausting at times, the constant bombardment of images and sounds, it’s like a juggling act but using more and more objects the longer the film goes on. I think the humour suffers as a result. I loved the Kirby Kyle anecdote though, the accident prone baseball player. I wonder if Allen faced a dilemma there, wonder if he considered reprising that story at various points throughout the film – you know, meanwhile, Kirby had another accident… It’s pretty cute at the beginning too; burglars break into a house and in mid-robbery decide to ring up a popular show to play Guess That Tune. They win and the next day a bunch of prizes turn up at the home of the burgled as some kind of recompense. Also, can’t forget Ma (Julie Kavner), Pa (Michael Tucker) and the rabbi giving Joe a group-slap. Funny.
It’s certainly an ambitious effort, that Radio Days could have easily turned into an indecipherable muddle yet doesn’t is a credit to Woody Allen’s sure direction. My own kid memories are a tumbling blur now and he captures that same kind of kick and rush effect flawlessly. But I subscribe completely to the idea of certain songs reaching out through those Mission speakers and whisking thee away to a land that time forgot, an audio time machine, recalling exactly where you were, what you were doing, who you were doing it to, stuff that was happening in the periphery… It’s a neat idea for a film and it’s maybe too honest an attempt because visually, the bedlam in one’s head needs to be tamed somewhat first, not just transferred directly to the screen. Radio Days kind of pulled me in all directions at once and quite often I’d be watching a scene but thinking of the one five minutes before.
By the time I arrived in this crazy mixed-up beautiful world, families sat around the telly, not the radio. I asked me mum though and she recalls her family grouped in front of an old wireless, listening to the traitorous ‘Lord Haw Haw’ during WW2, or whirling around the parlour to the latest Glen Miller cut, or laughing crazily along with The Goon Show. Folk can’t really sit around an iPod nowadays (I know, I know – technically they can but it ain’t the same kinda shizzle, dig). But it does resonate, particularly Allen’s use of tragedy, when a whole country stops and waits for news of a complete stranger, unified by the airwaves, linked by a common humanity… On a lighter note, I did like Ceil (Renee Lippin) laughing at a ventriloquist – on the radio. Abe (Josh Mostel) says; “He’s a ventriloquist on the radio… how do you know he’s not moving his lips?” Quality.
Though hard to shine individually within the film’s choppy structure, Wiest probably comes away the winner, with Farrow (superb again, as in Broadway Danny Rose) also tying her scenes together. The moment of her radio breakthrough is interrupted by news of the attack on Pearl Harbor and as the play actors file out of the studio Sally can be heard to ask; “Who is Pearl Harbor?” The attack saved her career though, I reckon – Sally was about to make a tit of herself. Radio Days ends on a hint of sadness; it’s hard to argue about the radio voices growing dimmer and dimmer with the passage of time. But meself, I only need a certain song to bring ‘em back through the snap, crackle and pop of the white noise loud and clear…
On the whole I enjoyed this. Woody has surprised me again, as he did with Danny Rose. Give it a spin, if you haven’t already.
I’ll go for 3 Old Wireless Boxes out of 5.
ThereWolf, May 2012