Monday, December 4, 2017

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #180 - Radio Days (1987, dir. Woody Allen)

In 1987 when Woody Allen made Radio Days, he waxed nostalgic for the days before television, when memories were formed and commemorated at the pace set by weekly radio programs, yet he could scarcely have conceived of the world of social media we inhabit now, where truth is lie and memories are discarded as soon as they are made. His incredibly heartfelt and masterful tribute to a slower time, when families sat together in living rooms and experienced life together as it crackled out of old vacuum tubes, feels like a prehistoric cave drawing compared to today’s reality. With hindsight, Radio Days is one of Woody Allen’s greatest achievements, and the movie that most exposes his sentimental attachment to his own childhood.

Taking place in the early 1940’s as World War II begins to permeate the consciousness of all Americans, our hero, Joe (clearly Woody as a child) narrates the story of his family’s combative but close living situation. An extended family of first generation Jews inhabiting tight quarters in Rockaway, Long Island, they, by physical necessity, experience everything together. No influence is more prevalent or central to their existence than the
constant warm glow of the radio. News of the day binds them emotionally, while talk shows and serials light their imaginations. No aspect though, is more present than the musical hits of the day. Along with the miraculous cast which includes Dianne Wiest, Mia Farrow, Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker (with cameos by everyone from Diane Keaton to Wallace Shawn to Larry David), the most present character in the movie is the delightful and memorable soundtrack. Filled with heart-tugging melodies and hilariously obscure novelty songs, Allen weaves them into the plot of his movie in a unique fashion - they don’t just accent the action, they predict, dictate and drive it forward. The songs propel the plot and color the most memorable scenes with unimaginable emotional impact. And emotional impact is where Woody Allen is heading with this movie. This is not one of his slapstick outings, nor is it a philosophical treatise on Man’s existential search for meaning, nor is it a fantasy. In fact, it stands alone in his canon as a beautifully honest and wistful autobiographical depiction of family and childhood.

Radio Days is blessed with a simultaneously linear and random plot line. Like memory itself, which boils the endless moments of life down to certain indelible images and an overall emotional “flavor,” this movie is episodic, and each episode is deeply imbued with rich details of family life and unforeseen emotional outcomes. Through it all is Joe’s childish narration, reminding us that the events which move history have deep resonance on the family and individual levels. The romantic life of Joe’s perpetually single Aunt Bea (Wiest) feels like another episode of his Mother’s favorite show, Breakfast With Roger And Irene. Allen’s script completes this circle in such an artistically satisfying fashion, weaving the lives of the actors of those shows into Joe’s life. In the end, as Joe melancholically bemoans the loss of radio, and ultimately the loss of youth, innocence and familial connection, we can’t help but share his sadness. In losing the details of our childhoods: the shows, the actors, the classrooms, the holiday dinners, the lives of our parents, we ourselves actually start to disappear, in real time, as we approach our own demise.

In a career defined by such artistic greatness and equally by such personal and public failure, Radio Days stands out in Woody Allen’s filmography as one of his purest artistic expressions. He masterfully creates a series of touching, jewel-like moments from life, which will ring true to anyone with a heart, and then he creates narrative connective tissue with the sounds of the radio and the unbreakable bonds of family. It is his most emotionally satisfying film.

-          Paul Epstein

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