A nostalgic look at radio's golden age focusing on one ordinary family and the various performers in the medium.
There are the Woody Allen films we all know and love, the ones that instantly spring to mind whenever the legendary writer-director's name is mentioned. Movies like 'Bananas,' 'Sleeper,' 'Annie Hall,' 'Manhattan,' 'Crimes and Misdemeanors,' 'Match Point,' 'Hannah and Her Sisters,' and 'Midnight in Paris.' And then there are what I like to call the gems - small yet gleaming diamonds that litter Allen's patchwork cinematic landscape. Such films rely only minimally on plot, focusing instead on quirky characters and offbeat scenarios, yet they resonate with copious amounts of warmth and passion. 'Radio Days' is one of those special productions, a movie brimming with nostalgia, filled with insightful and occasionally goofy humor, and packed with relatable situations. It's one of Allen's most personal films, and despite its diminutive stature, it somehow manages to compete with the giants in the director's canon.
The title sets the tone. This is a loving film about the days when radio was king, when the human voice was the gateway to fantasy, romance, suspense, glamour, and heartache, brightening and enhancing the daily drudgeries that often defined the Depression and World War II years. For most families, that little, unassuming tabletop box that sat on the kitchen counter, living room mantle, or bedroom nightstand was their connection to the world at large, and as vital and cherished a companion as any sibling, spouse, or cousin. Allen knew it well, growing up in its presence, and through a series of highly personal vignettes - some of which reflect experiences in his own life as a young boy growing up in the Rockaway section of Brooklyn, and some of which mirror national events from the fields of news, sports, entertainment, and human interest - he salutes the era, depicting how radio powerfully influenced and expanded all of our lives.
Allen narrates the drama, but never appears. Here, his alter ego is a kid named Joe (a young Seth Green), a spirited redhead who lives with his middle-class, down-to-earth parents (Michael Tucker and Julie Kavner) and single aunt (Dianne Wiest), who dreams of nothing else but meeting Mr. Right. Together, they experience the vagaries of everyday life, and though Allen injects plenty of humor into the proceedings, exaggerating certain episodes with his trademark sense of the absurd, every episode rings true. And those nuggets of truth, however miniscule, build over the movie's course until they paint an utterly accurate portrait of city dwellers in the early 1940s.
Of course, juxtaposed against this vision of normalcy is the parallel universe of Manhattan, depicted here as a fairyland where bright lights, sophisticated ladies, roguish gentlemen, and glorious culture reign supreme. It's here, in one of the posh nightclubs that showcase the screaming brass of big bands and a clientele dripping in precious jewels that we find Sally White (a radiant Mia Farrow), a not-so-bright blonde with a high-pitched Lina Lamont voice who desperately wishes to become a vocalist on the radio...which, she hopes, will lead to a better, more refined station in life. Her story, supposedly loosely based on the career of Hedda Hopper, is equally funny and touching, exuding a different kind of warmth that's specific to the harder edged realm of the Big Apple. Examining radio as an industry, as well as its influence on the masses, makes for a fascinating and wholly satisfying walk down memory lane.
Allen is a master of intimacy, and the little touches - too numerous to mention - sprinkled throughout this film enliven the story, crystallize its meaning, and make it personal. And the always brilliant way Allen employs music - here perfectly matching a marvelous array of big band and popular standards to the on-screen action - enhances the impact of seemingly innocuous scenes, heightening the emotion contained within, so we feel enveloped by the film's stunning sense of time and place. At his best, Allen can be incredibly lyrical, and the way 'Radio Days' is constructed and executed, it often feels like a symphony, with its various movements each distinguished by a distinct tone.
And peppered throughout this seemingly simple yet impeccably woven production are appearances by a veritable stock company of stalwart Allen thespians, each one perfectly cast, often in blink-and-you'll-miss-them cameos. Identifying them all is part of the fun of this rich period tapestry. There's Wallace Shawn, Kenneth Mars, Tito Puente, Danny Aiello, Jeff Daniels, Mercedes Ruehl, and Tony Roberts, to name but a few, and, in a breathtakingly lovely turn as an elegant band singer, Diane Keaton. 'Radio Days' marks the only time Allen's two iconic muses, Farrow and Keaton, appeared in the same film together, and though they never share the screen, their joint presence adds an extra bit of magic to the movie. (Look closely and you'll also spot William H. Macy, who doesn't utter a word, and - from afar - Larry David.)
I first saw 'Radio Days' upon its initial release back in 1987. Maybe because I was 24 at the time, it didn't speak to me the way it does today. Nostalgic memoirs about the beauty and innocence of one's childhood don't mean much to 24-year-olds, but more than a quarter of a century later, Allen's memoir bowled me over with its keen perception, delicate touch, delightful humor, and heartwarming sensitivity. As I looked through Allen's eyes, I not only saw his childhood, but also my own, even though I was raised in a vastly different era and locale. But that's Allen's genius; he can take any topic, incident, or emotion, and somehow connect it to your life, and often make it seem as if he is speaking directly to you. Judy Garland can do that with a song, but she's the only other artist I can think of who possesses that incredible communicative gift.
The radio is a form of communication, and 'Radio Days' celebrates the way we interact with each other, and how communication unifies and bonds us. It's a small film that doesn't say much, yet somehow speaks volumes about who we are and what makes us tick. This movie is a true treasure, and anyone who might cavalierly dismiss it as trifling or inconsequential is in for an eye-opening experience. 'Radio Days' may never achieve the same reputation as Allen's most acclaimed works, but it stands apart from the pack as one of his most personal and accessible motion pictures. And that makes it very special indeed.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Radio Days,' a limited to 3,000 units edition, arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. An eight-page booklet, featuring an essay on the film by stalwart Twilight Time contributor Julie Kirgo and several color and black-and-white photos, is tucked inside the front cover. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The era of the 1940s cries out for three-strip Technicolor, and even though the process was long obsolete by the time 'Radio Days' went into production in the mid-1980s, Allen somehow evokes Technicolor's lushness and vibrancy, and Twilight Time's excellent transfer does Carlo Di Palma's sumptuous photography proud. Though the source material does exhibit plenty of faint yet noticeable specks and marks, the terrific foreground clarity and contrast minimize their impact. Faint grain enhances the movie's period feel and preserves the old-fashioned look of celluloid, while the vivid palette lends the nostalgic memories depicted on screen a larger-than-life aura. Black levels possess good weight and depth (especially in the mens' tuxedos), whites are bright but never bloom, and fleshtones appear natural and stable throughout. Close-ups highlight facial features well, patterns and textures (such as the plaid in young Joe's wool jacket) are sharp and resist shimmering, and fine shadow delineation keeps any potential instances of crush at bay.
The transfer, however, does stumble a bit at times. Some scenes aren't as well defined as others, background elements occasionally look fuzzy, and a smattering of noise creeps into the image from time to time. Though these are minor annoyances, they're noticeable enough to merit mention. Thankfully, no artificial sharpening or other digital enahncements could be detected. All in all, this is an excellent rendering of a beautifully mounted movie, and one that's sure to please Allen's legion of diehard fans.
Woody Allen films usually aren't known for their robust soundtracks, and 'Radio Days' is no exception. However, the DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track showcases the period music that comprises the movie's score to perfection. Excerpts from 43 popular standards of the 1930s and 1940s crop up during the course of the picture, including numbers sung by Mia Farrow ('I Don't Want to Walk Without You') and Diane Keaton ('You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To'). A wide dynamic scale allows the Big Band brass plenty of wiggle room - selections such as 'Opus One,' 'In the Mood,' 'Begin the Beguine,' 'Take the A Train,' and 'Frenesi' benefit from superior fidelity, while warm, cozy ballads like 'Body and Soul,' 'September Song,' 'Dancing in the Dark' and 'You'll Never Know' possess exceptional depth of tone, and fill the room with ease.
All of Allen's priceless dialogue is well prioritized and easy to comprehend. His voice-over narration exhibits a bit of extra prominence, which in turn adds vital oomph to certain scenes. No age-related imperfections, such as hiss, pops, and crackles, rear their ugly heads, unless they're intentionally inserted to emphasize how period recordings sound. Though it's tough to get too excited over a mono track, this one perfectly meshes with the visuals to create a marvelously cohesive unit.
Typical of Allen films on home video, extras are paltry at best. The only supplements included here are an Isolated Music and Effects Track, which beautifully highlights the period standards that comprise the movie's score, and the original theatrical trailer, which runs a scant 90 seconds and relies on the talents of announcer Don Pardo to rattle off the names of the ensemble cast against the static visual backdrop of a tabletop radio.
A loving salute to a simpler time, filled with warmth, humor, sentiment, and a few well-placed dashes of irreverence, 'Radio Days' is an unequivocal joy from start to finish. Writer-director Woody Allen waxes nostalgic about his own childhood, his old neighborhood, the bright lights of the Big Apple, and a far more innocent period through a series of lyrical - and often hilarious - vignettes that beautifully and succinctly capture fleeting, meaningful moments that shape both a family and an era. A veritable who's who of Allen actors appear in the film and help raise it to a higher plane. Despite the lack of extras, Twilight Time's Blu-ray presentation is still a winner, thanks to a solid video transfer and good-quality audio.Though not much more than a trifle, 'Radio Days' somehow resonates, and like fine wine, it just gets better with age. Highly recommended.