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RADIO DAYS

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Mia Farrow, Julie Kavner, Seth Green, Josh Mostel, Michael Tucker, Dianne Wiest
Director:  Woody Allen
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  MGM
Features:  Theatrical Trailer
Length:  88 Minutes
Release Date:  November 6, 2001

“Pay more attention to your schoolwork and less to the radio!”

“YOU always listen to the radio!”

“That’s different!  Our lives are ruined already!”

Film ****

A car runs out of gas, and the couple inside, who are on their first date, are eager for what happens next.  But it never happens…the romantic interlude is interrupted by a radio broadcast intoning that the Martians have landed.  The man panics and runs away, leaving the girl afraid, alone, and helpless.  He never sees her again…the word she left behind is that she ran off with one of the Martians.

That, of course, was Orson Welles’ historic airing of H. G. Welles’ The War of The Worlds.  It caused widespread panic across America because of its realism.  And I’d guess it probably did stop at least one or two romantic moments cold.

Radio Days is a warm, sunny piece of American nostalgia told with the visual flair of Fellini, but with all the humor and intelligence of Woody Allen.  It’s a film so rich in memory that every time I see it, I wax nostalgic for the times depicted in it, even though they were decades before my birth.

The radio was at one point the centerpiece of American families.  Before television, there was music, radio plays, special programs, interviews with the stars, and more.  People who gathered around the old boxes had to use their imaginations, and many kids like Joe (a very young Seth Green), had fertile ones.  His hero was The Masked Avenger, who sounded like a pillar of might on the airwaves, but in real life, looked very much like short bald actor Wallace Shawn.

Allen’s film weaves between stories and characters, from young Joe and his wonderfully comic family (many relatives under one roof) to the on-air personalities that enthralled and entertained them.  The radio was also a pipeline into the events of the world, as aspiring actress Sally White (Farrow) brutally learns when her big radio debut is cut because of the announcement about Pearl Harbor (“Who IS Pearl Harbor??” she demands).

There is no focal character, but my thoughts couldn’t help always drifting back to Joe, who is obviously meant to represent Allen as a child (Allen himself narrates the film, but does not appear).  His family is often seen through his eyes, from his unlucky-in-love aunt (Wiest) to his quibbling parents (Kavner and Tucker), to his uncle Abe (Mostel), who suffers chest pains after deciding to break a traditional Jewish fast.

The world is not only seen through the eyes of a child, but through his imagination as well.  There is a polished, glamorously colorful and exaggerated look to certain scenes in the picture, from his first radio show to the strip tease he and his friends observe through a window, where the girl turns out to be…ah, you’ll find out.  There is even a shot where the kid swears he saw a Nazi U-boat off the shore…the kind of thing you question as an adult, but seems so real when you’re a child.

The whole nostalgia theme is beautifully and comically handled.  The film is like walking through memories, even to the point of realizing that memories are sometimes even better than the real thing.  When the radio stars ponder their futures on New Years’ Eve of 1944, they wonder if they will be remembered.  And Allen himself dutifully points out that memories do in fact get fainter and fainter as the years pass. 

The radio days are indeed gone forever.  But they couldn’t have asked for a better tribute than this warm, funny film from Woody Allen.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Look for many Allen regulars in small roles, including Danny Aiello, Jeff Daniels, Tony Roberts, and Diane Keaton, looking and sounding beautiful.  Listen also for real life radio personalities of old, like Don Pardo, Guy le Bow and Kenneth Roberts.

Video ****

What a treat!  This is a beautiful anamorphic transfer from MGM, and one of the finest I’ve seen for a Woody Allen film.  The disc beautifully captures the warm, rich, memory-tinted colors of Carlo Di Palma’s cinematography…scene after scene is beautifully detailed and unmarred by grain, spots, or other distortions.  As with memories, most everything takes on a supernatural look; brighter, more vivid, more toned than real life, and it all comes across with integrity and beauty on this DVD.  Excellent!

Audio ***

Sound, of course, is very important on a film like Radio Days, and though Allen always mixes his films for mono, this is still a vibrant listen, with a bevy of terrific oldies scoring the action, clean, clear dialogue, and some dynamic range for exaggerated dramatic effect…just like the old radio shows!

Features *

Only a trailer.

Summary:

Radio Days is one of the best of Woody Allen’s most overlooked films.  It’s a wonderful look back at a simpler time filtered through the rose-colored glasses of memory.  It’s warm, it’s funny, it’s an absolute treasure, and one no movie lover should miss seeing.