If you want to see an impressive track record from any filmmaker, then Woody Allen shines as one of the most prolific directors of modern times. Since 1982 with A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, Woody has directed a film each and every year. This is a rule that has landed him in trouble especially when his later career is concerned, films like Scoop or The Curse of Jade Scorpion have had a mauling from critics. They will never live up to the acclaimed films that he made during 1980’s.
This period was practically his golden age, no matter what, he seemed to pump out hit after critical hit. Hannah and Her Sisters, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Zelig are all beloved favourites of his. But then comes along Radio Days which is under spoken amongst many of his fans. Released in 1987, Radio Days was Woody’s sixteenth feature film and it won the hearts of critics across America. It got tipped for a couple of Oscar nominations and featured an illustrious cast from Allen regulars such as Mia Farrow to the voice of Marge Simpson herself, Julie Kavner. But after all the awards contention, Radio Days went home empty handed and was largely forgotten. This is a shame as Radio Days is one of Woody’s most touching, human and pleasant films that he ever made.
Set during the late thirties to the early forties, the film looks at a series of stories surrounding the golden age of old-time radio all told through the eyes of the narrator, Joe, voiced by Allen himself. Joe, as seen when he is young (played by a fresh-faced Seth Green), comes from a Jewish-American background and is very nostalgic over the medium. He is able to recount the performers, the shows and what other members of his family liked to tune in to such as his mother’s ritualistic listening of Breakfast with Irene and Roger. At the seed of this film is the family, the mother (Julie Kavner), the father (Michael Tucker), Aunt Bea (Dianne West) and Uncle Abe (Josh Mostel) and from there onwards it spreads to an array of outsiders. From radio talk show hosts, presenters and actors that all made radio a unique experience.
Radio Days is a love letter to old-time radio, not least because of its nostalgic treatment of its content, but also because Allen peppers in amusing and funny anecdotes that carry the film, many of which were based on real life stories. For example, the whole Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds situation was bound to be parodied in a Woody Allen film such as this. So he takes it upon himself to recreate the hysteria the original Welles broadcast conjured up, by having Aunt Bea and her latest date stuck in the middle of a foggy afternoon as they just tune into a dramatized news bulletin of an alien invasion across America. You can see what the reaction is going to be.
For that matter, you can honestly see Woody’s thinking behind writing the screenplay. These days, radio has really become a jukebox with the odd talk show peppered in. The enjoyment of entertainment is now found with television, cinema and other audio-visual platforms such as podcasts. So Woody is shining a light on this old school medium, crying out to us to not forget how important this was in the day. It is a celebration of what made it special, from the children’s programming of The Masked Avenger to a simple little friendly jingle, every minute detail furthers this message that it is practically a dead art form and that it should be remembered.
As schmaltzy as this may sound, the warmth Radio Days brings is the cinematic equivalent of someone cozying up to a fire with a blanket wrapped around them. The honey colour palette is a total match for the innocent childhood that Joe had. And the best part is that Woody still takes the time to add in his trademark punchy, awkward humour that lifts a scene. A kid in Joe’s class takes his father’s used condom to a show-and-tell, only for the teacher to immediately snatch it away and Joe is caught keeping charity money from a local rabbi. So his father, the mother and the rabbi continuously hit him as punishment. Radio Days never indulges itself in the world of entertainment it glamourizes. It still knows that is a coming of age story, albeit a very slight one. Joe’s opinions develop over the course of the film that it keeps the weight of message grounded in reality. His first experience of seeing a woman nude is there, as is his first and only sighting of a German U-Boat. The reality and the fantasy aspect of the story blend so well together that it is always believable. And for that matter, Radio Days is a thoughtful work from a director who was in top form during this period in his career.