After the contemporary Hannah And Her Sisters, Woody Allen returned to the past with Radio Days. It has been really interesting to watch this run of films in quick succession. This is a more upbeat and less satirical film than The Purple Rose Of Cairo, though it shares that film’s nostalgia. And while Hannah dazzled with its structure, this film’s structure is even more sophisticated, though in a much less obvious way.
That’s because there isn’t any real plot in a traditional sense. Radio Days is narrated by Woody as he remembers events from his childhood and shares stories of the radio personalities his family listened to all the time. Characters still have journeys within the films :an aunt goes on many dates looking for Mr Right; a hat-check girl becomes a radio star; a married couple bicker relentlessly but are deeply in love. But the narrative progression is almost invisible as Woody makes so many detours to share funny and touching anecdotes.
Speaking of his past, Woody has said that some memories in this film really happened and others are invented. Which is which doesn’t really interest me. What I enjoy about this film is how he is able to use real events, remembered events, gossip and music to create a kind of mosaic. Unlike Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex, however, the parts of this film work together. Even within scenes, characters move and in an out and dialogue overlaps. Woody’s mastery of narrative space and time is at its best here. In some ways Radio Days is similar to the sprawling films of Robert Altman, such as Short Cuts, though with much more focus.
Quentin Tarantino once called his film Jackie Browne a great ‘hangout movie’ and compared it to Rio Bravo. Though it may seem like strange company, that’s how I think of Radio Days: a collection of wonderfully drawn characters you want to spend some time with. It’s not demanding, the stories aren’t life changing and there is no grand message to be delivered.
Woody has said that the inspiration for much of the script was popular music from the period. The soundtrack is wonderful, especially the recurring use of September Song, which gives the film a melancholy tinge at its finale as the narrator admits the old radio days are fading from his own memory. (It’s a shame that it is not included on the released soundtrack album!) Dick Hyman contributes many period parodies as he did in Zelig (including a hilarious jingle for laxatives) and Diane Keaton performs Cole Porter’s You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.
That cameo is just one among many from Woody’s past company. Other familiar faces appearing only briefly include Tony Roberts, Jeff Daniels, Wallace Shawn and Danny Aiello. (Future cast member Larry David also appears, though only in a long shot.) The main cast is terrific too, featuring Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Julie Kavner and a young Seth Green as a young Woody Allen.
Radio Days may seem inconsequential compared to the more philosophical or searing of Woody Allen’s films, but it remains one of his most gently entertaining. With its unabashed nostalgia, its romantic vision of 1940s New York and its celebration of bygone popular culture, it may also be the film that is the most personal to the filmmaker.
Next week: September