Woody Allen’s 1987 film Radio Days is the best pure comedy the filmmaker ever wrote and directed, and as such it is a great film. There is much truth to Allen’s own stated dictum that drama his a higher form of art than comedy because it is, to paraphrase, ‘sitting at the grownups’ table.’ However, the fact that it deals with mere life (therefore gaining it the mischaracterization as plotless- think of the same criticisms of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn) rather than one or two ‘major’ ideas, the way his Stardust Memories, Crimes And Misdemeanors, Manhattan, or Another Woman do, does not diminish the sheer brilliance and greatness of Radio Days as a film, apart from its reality as a great comedy, as well. It is also why, despite the end of Allen’s Golden Age of filmmaking (1977’s Annie Hall through 1992’s Husbands And Wives), so many of his fans still go to see his films, in the hopes that Allen will recapture the sustained greatness of films like this, or, at least, hit some similar highs.
The film is told through a voiceover (Woody Allen), who is the older version of a character we soon learn is named Joe (Seth Green), a small red-haired preteen. Green plays the best and most convincing young version of an Allen alter-ego in all his films- with just the right amount of nastiness, sweetness, and humor. The film is set from between about 1938 and New Year’s Eve of 1943 to early New Year’s Day of 1944, and is a series of anecdotes and what are now called ‘urban legends’- mostly those revolving around the radio industry of those days. The setting is Rockaway Beach, in Queens, New York, and Joe’s is a poor Jewish family wherein in-laws are forced to share the same house with their parents, as well as share party telephone lines with the neighbors. As with Allen’s earlier films, Interiors and Hannah And Her Sisters, the main family unit in this film revolves around three sisters: Joe’s mom (Julie Kavner), his single aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest), and married aunt Ceil (Renee Lippin). Joe’s mom and aunt Ceil are married to two lovable losers: Joe’s dad (Michael Tucker), who hides his real profession, as a cabdriver, from Joe, until a great moment of discovery; and his aunt Ceil’s husband, uncle Abe (Josh Mostel)- an apparently out of work and obese schlemiel who somehow makes a bit off money and contributes to the household via his fish connections at Sheepshead Bay. Also living in the house are Joe’s grandparents (William Magerman and Leah Carrey) and his cousin Ruthie (Joy Newman)- a teenaged girl who eavesdrops on the neighbors’ conversations on the party line, as well as providing one of the best moments in the film, when she starts dancing and lip-synching to Carmen Miranda’s song, South American Way, as Joe’s dad and Uncle Abe lip-synch the chorus. Despite the seeming outrageousness of it, in reality, this is a very typically New York thing to do, even to this day, and the way the moment is presented and shot is bathed in a sense of longing. This sort of ‘moment’ helps viewers identify with the familial characters which transcend stereotype into archetypes that any person can see correspondingly in their own clans.
Indeed, an early scene of Rockaway Beach on a drizzly, overcast day is somehow gorgeous, and shows Allen’s Golden Age films were not only brilliantly written masterworks of cinema, but visually stellar- and this film is no exception, as Woody Allen teamed with Carlo Di Palma (one of Allen’s great cinematographers- along with Gordon Willis and Sven Nykvist), who lensed many classic films for Michelangelo Antonioni, and manages to even make colorized shots from old stock footage seem as if shot contemporaneously with the rest of this film. Yet, even better than the cinematography in the film is the music. The film’s soundtrack is simply one of the ten best ever- not only in the aptness of the application of music to scene, but in the choice of simply great music from the first half of the last century. This film shows that musical quality and mood evocation can go hand in hand. The credit for that has to go to the scoring by Dick Hyman and Allen, himself, who proves that he is the only American film director even within spitting distance of being as good a film scorer as German filmmaker Werner Herzog; and, yes, that means his films are even better scored than those of Stanley Kubrick and PMartin Scorsese. It’s no shock that Allen claims the film originated in his love for the music of that era. Santo Loquasto's production design is also not only historically accurate, but both the costumes and sets have the requisite amount of filth and dinge that, along with the great lighting by Di Palma, really make this film’s interior world ‘look’ old. Radio Days, like most Allen films, never goes on too long (88 minutes), and the DVD, put out by MGM, shows the film in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio. The only extra feature is the film’s original theatrical trailer, and a few facts and trivia bits included in the DVD insert.
But the film is not squarely focused on the family of Joe, but on the many antics of the famous and wannabe famous denizens of the world of radio. The most ubiquitous of these characters is Sally White (Mia Farrow), a wannabe actress who ends up as a gossip columnist in the Louella Parsons- but especially Hedda Hopper- mold. She cats around with a radio host who cheats on his wife, witnesses a mob hit (by a character played by Danny Aiello), and subsequently benefits from it (in the film’s most gutbustingly funny scene with the hitman’s mother- played by Dina DeAngeles), sees her first stab at fame flame out do to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and takes diction lessons that propel her into stardom. Other sidestories include the sophisticated Manhattanites Roger (David Warrilow)- Sally’s paramour, and Irene (Julie Kurnitz), who host a radio show filled with the talk of the town, the Masked Avenger (Wallace Shawn), and numerous smaller gags based upon real radio shows of yore, but which were too expensive for Allen to secure the rights to. Yet, even here, there is a ‘realism’ of sorts. Note the way ‘special effects’ were made on the cheap, in the radio studio, and the way actors dropped pages they were done reading, rather than turn the page, to avoid the rustle being picked up on the microphone. The Masked Avenger tale is not really followed, save for its effect on Joe (a nice digressive entwining of both the ‘real’ and ‘radio’ worlds in the film); who schemes to steal money begged for to help found a Jewish state in Palestine so he and his pals can buy a Masked Avenger Secret Compartment Ring. A hilarious scene occurs when the local rabbi finds out of the theft, and in front of Joe’s parents, starts hitting the boy- after he calls the rabbi, ‘My faithful Indian companion’- ala The Lone Ranger, causing them both to smack the boy so the rabbi won’t. This goes on until the rabbi chides the parents for their abuse.
The film also does a remarkable job of being faithful to the idea of memory, not only in Allen’s own monologues, but in the presentation of the very things that the lead character of Joe sees (or recalls as possibly having seen). Among these are a Nazi submarine surfacing off of Coney Island and a sequence wherein Joe and his friends seemingly see a woman, who later turns out to be a substitute teacher of theirs, dancing nude in a corner apartment, while looking through binoculars. What makes the scene more than just a boys’ fantasy is how there are hints that there is something unreal and fantastical to it- such as the exaggeratedly sexual way the teacher moves. This is how an impression of the teacher might remain in memory, but not a reality. Other aspects of the film that work are Aunt Bea’s continued failures with men- she dates (on camera) a coward, a homosexual, and a married man, and, wisely, Allen never gives a hint as to whether or not she finds her Mr. Right- although her The War Of The Worlds scene with the coward is a classic (one which Allen assiduously avoids mentioning the real life facts about Orson Welles’ radio play’s panic causing).
Many critics have compared this film to Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, and there’s little doubt that that film was in Allen’s rearview mirror as he essayed this project. However, as with most criticism of Allen cribbing from other filmmakers, this sort of criticism fails to note that Allen’s films are often better than their sources, and sometimes significantly better. Amarcord never had the dramatic moments, concision, nor well sketched minor characters that Radio Days has. There is not a scene in Allen’s film that is wasted, nor is a character wasted, and almost every character with a few lines gets some sort of closure. Fellini’s film, by contrast, has many characters and scenes that are played out, then never touched again. Granted, like Radio Days, it has brilliant scenes and funny scenes, but there’s never a moment like Joe’s finding out his father is a cabdriver, nor a moment like the wistful ending of Radio Days, which ends with this great narration, which I once used as an epigraph to a poem of mine: ‘I never forgot that New Year’s Eve when Aunt Bea awakened me to watch 1944 come in. I’ve never forgotten any of those people, or any of the voices we would hear on the radio. Though the truth is, with the passing of each New Year’s Eve, those voices do seem to grow dimmer and dimmer.’ Instead of the well written poignancy of Allen’s film (and note the added synaesthesia Allen uses by stating that a sound grows dimmer (a visual cue) not an aural one like softer), Fellini’s film abounds in grotesques. Just look at the similar scenes of sexual initiation in both films. In Allen’s film the lead character gets to have a sexy, big bosomed substitute teacher shake her wares in front of him- that’s all. In Amarcord, the young lead male character gets essentially suffocated and sexually assaulted by an obese and enormously bosomed middle-aged female tobacconist. While both situations are likely not ‘true’ occurrences, Allen’s, at least, remains in the realm of possibility, and so too does his whole film- which is a pure comedy of life, which is what makes it truly nostalgic, whereas Fellini’s film is far more often pure spoof, rather than pointed satire. It is not a comedy of life, but a cartoon- sometimes brilliant, but never any more than a cartoon.
The worst critical untruth about Radio Days, however, often has come from its champions, like Roger Ebert, who echo the nonsense I stated at the start- that the film lacks a plot. In fact, it has a dense, multi-floriate plot. All art has narrative. The narrative may be as simple as ‘a dot on a sheet of paper,’ but that’s still a narrative. Not a good one, and the artist should be roundly railed against for the attempt to gull, but it is a narrative, however vapid. When bad critics often label something non-narrative or plotless, what they are really doing is defining the limits of their own critical abilities in being able to discern a narrative. The same is also true when critics call something non-representational, because they cannot understand what is represented, but that’s for another essay. The worst example of a critic plugging the film while essentially not getting it comes from Mike Pinsky of DVD Verdict, who claims:
The script is really nothing but a dramatised collection of reminiscences, and as you’d expect from such a setup some are better than others. The biggest challenge of all is to make it hold together as a single entity. It works best as a box of treats to dip into whenever we feel like it, so unlike most films, catching five minutes here and there while channel surfing roughly equates to watching it in an 85 minute stretch. You could probably even watch it backwards, scene by scene, and it would still make about as much sense.
Well, NO! Implicit in Pinsky’s claim is that there is no ‘sense’ in Allen’s structuring of the narrative, but the later scenes, with characters seen before, all echo things in earlier scenes. Joe’s, Aunt Bea’s, Sally White’s, and many other characters’ tales, are all dependent upon growth and realization of tidbits hinted at earlier. Picaresques, and Radio Days is as fine an example of a picaresque as there is in modern film, often work in a web like narrative fashion rather than a linear one, as well as often never connecting nor finishing all the threads, but the narrative is there, and the film does have almost all the familial and radio characters end up woven into the same New Year’s Eve moment. Echoic scenes and moments (such as the simultaneous New Year’s echo and the ones separated in time and space) are also a plot device that is often overlooked. Note the many scenes between Joe’s mom and dad, and how many of them involve arguments as the radio is playing. These start out with the ridiculous: the couple arguing over which is the greater ocean- Atlantic or Pacific (which is echoed by Joe’s Uncle and aunt arguing over the funniness of a radio ventriloquist- how can one know if his lips are moving; or is that beside the point if funny?), and end having escalated to the profound- the remote broadcast of a little Pennsylvania girl- Polly Phelps- who falls down a well and dies. It is in such contrasts that, even if webbed narrative is difficult for most film critics to understand, they should understand that the overarching ‘plot’ of the film is simply everyday life; and, after all, is not real life a webbed- not linear- narrative? And webbed narrative is not meandering- which implies anomy. Radio Days is headed toward the future, and a future that the viewer never gets to glimpse (outside of Allen’s narration).
Radio Days is a masterpiece, a work of art that requires multiple viewings; not so that one can get everything, but so that everything can penetrate. And, even when it does, it can be seen again so that different aspects of it can work on the viewer in different ways and strengths. It is not nostalgia- a term often tossed about with contempt, but about memory (which most art has at its core), and whether memory is a dead thing in the past or a living thing in the present, as well as whether memory changes reality or reality changes memory, or both (see my earlier comment on synaesthesia). In fact, the excellence and speed with which the jokes, ironies, and vignettes fly by makes this nearly hour and a half long film seem only a third that length- an excellent demonstration of my just stated thesis on the way memory and reality interact. Let me end by stating that, having demonstrated this film’s objective greatness, I also subjectively love it; for so much of this material resonates with me, born in 1965, because I had Great Depression era parents who schooled me in the culture of decades earlier to such a point that I often feel I was born three decades earlier- in Allen’s birth year. Regardless of that, Radio Days stands as a great comic invitation to an American past which sort of existed. Finding out the edges of that ‘sort,’ however, has rarely been as joyful.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.