When critics discuss Woody Allen’s best films, or the great films of the 1980s, I’m consistently disappointed that there isn’t more discussion of his 1987 picture Radio Days. Coming on the heels of his great and somewhat audacious Hannah and Her Sisters, audiences and critics alike seemed to mistake Radio Days as something slight – a fine, funny movie, but not a major statement. As time passes, it becomes clearer and clearer that Radio Days is one of Allen’s most perfectly realized films.
Joe (Seth Green), is the narrator/Woody as a child, a radio-obsessed kid living in Rockaway Beach with his parents (Michael Tucker and Julie Kavner, both excellent), his grandparents, cousin Ruthie, Uncle Abe (Josh Mostel) and Aunt Ceil, and his sweetly optimistic spinster Aunt Bea (Diane Wiest). The film is full of cameos by Allen veterans and notable character actors: Jeff Daniels, Tony Roberts, Danny Aiello, Wallace Shawn, Kenneth Mars, et al. Even Diane Keaton appears as a singer late in the film.
However, it’s Allen’s stand in family that remains the heart of the piece. Radio Days is the most warm-hearted film of Allen’s career and one of his most personal statements. It’s a love letter not only to the pre-TV days when radio ruled American consciousness, but also to family and childhood and to the stories we tell and the way we tell them.
Radio Days has a unique structure: we don’t follow a story from beginning to end, rather we get served a series of anecdotes that are conjured up by the songs and shows of 1940s radio. Allen serves as the voice-over narrator, stringing together memories and commentary on the action, which splits time between a fictionalized version of his own family and childhood, the glamorous world of the radio stars themselves and the rise of Sally White (Mia Farrow) a cigarette girl who dreams of radio stardom. (Allen’s narration functions much like the greek chorus of stand up comics did in Broadway Danny Rose.)
The constant merry-go-round of characters and sets and shifts in tone is ambitious as anything Allen has ever done. One minute we’re with Joe’s parents as they argue about which is a greater ocean, the Atlantic or Pacific, the next we could be behind the scenes with a group of radio stars at a glittering Manhattan nightclub, then off to another one of Bea’s ill-fated dates. All the while, we realize we’re hearing almost wall-to-wall music, Allen’s expertly chosen soundtrack of popular songs of the era. In an interview with Stig Bjorkman, Allen discussed the trick of keeping this sort of movie afloat:
SB: It’s a very elaborate script, considering all the elements in it: the family, the school, the radio events, the radio personalities..
WA: A film like Radio Days presents a particular type of problem. When you don’t have a ‘What happens next?’ story, when you’re working with anecdotal material, the trick, I feel, is that you have to sustain each thing on its own brilliance, on its own rhythm, on its own style. So you really have to work very, very hard to make a movie like that, because you have to know that the anecdotes that you’re relating to the audience an hour, an hour and a half into the film are not going to bore them. That they’re still going to find them fresh and funny. It’s a difficult kind of film to do, a non-plot, a non-conventional plot film.
Suffice to say, Allen finds plenty of material to keep boredom away, including Joe’s hilarious confrontation with Kenneth Mars’ rabbi, the angry Communists next door, U-Boats off the coast of Rockaway Beach, a discussion of Dana Andrews’ gender and Aiello in an insanely funny mother-son gangster scene that, it should be noted, hit screens three years before Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.
Allen’s clever and complicated script is brought brilliantly to life by the cast and also through predictably excellent production design and Carlo DiPalma’s photography. The film’s warm, brownish tones recall the look of The Godfather, famously shot by one of Allen’s own favorite collaborators, Gordon Willis. Allen also makes frequent use of fluid, elegant pans and tracking shots. We start on one side of a room and slowly make our way across it. In this way, he seems to be evoking the way someone might try to recall a place from his past. It’s that recollection of the past that seems to be at the heart of the piece. It’s also why Allen uses comically exaggerated versions of his own family and neighbors, and recalls the radio shows and stories unreliably, like someone getting the story third-hand, or piecing together different versions.
This isn’t a film simply about the past, but about the ways we remember the past and attempt to keep it alive. Roger Ebert compared the film with Fellini’s Amarcord and noted that “Allen finds the same truth that Fellini did: What actually happens isn’t nearly as important as how we remember it.”
As the film opens and Allen begins to dig into his bag of radio stories, he notes “They’re all gone now.” The film ends on a similarly wistful note. Allen has many of his radio world characters converge for a New Year’s Eve party at the nightclub where Sally, now a star, once worked as a cigarette girl. They go to the roof to welcome in the New Year on one of the most elaborate sets Allen’s ever used: a Camel billboard blows smoke rings and a huge top hat mechanically tips over and over. As the characters scramble back in from the cold, we’re left with the haunting image of that top hat, lifting up and lowering slowly; being tipped to the past, both as a salute and a farewell.