In Radio Days, we find Woody Allen wrapping up a trilogy of movies in the mid-1980s about show biz. First, we had 1984’s Broadway Danny Rose, which took a dim look at the stage, with gangster influence and bribery abounding. In 1985, he took on the movies, with The Purple Rose of Cairo. It is a sweet film in many ways, but takes some shots at the people behind and, especially, in front of the camera. After a brief respite with the Oscar-winning Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen returned to tackle show biz in 1987 with the sentimental, nostalgia-dripping Radio Days.
In the movie, Allen tells the story (predictably) of radio’s hey-day, with Allen himself providing the voiceover, presenting inter-related vignettes that revolve around radio and its impact on the lives of people living in 1940s New York City. The narrator speaks from the perspective of a grown-up Joe, looking back on his childhood in Rockaway Beach. Young Joe (Seth Green) and his family find out about the wider world through the filter of radio. Even as they caution Joe not to fry his brain listening to the radio, Joe’s family idolizes radio stars, to the point where Joe and his parents allow a minor quiz show radio star to insult them in public, and then thank him for the opportunity.
The other half of the vignettes tell the stories of the radio stars themselves, set mostly in the swanky clubs and studios of Midtown Manhattan. We meet the likes of Roger and Irene, the couple who eat breakfast on the air every morning, allowing listeners a daily peek into their upscale, butlered existence. We also learn the story of Sally (Mia Farrow), who transformed herself from cigarette girl to radio star through acts of sacrifice and determination, not all of which could be considered honorable.
If Allen calls out any shenanigans in this film, it’s not in a cautionary way, because in the end it works out for the characters that live in this world. The advantages taken of the innocent by those in power are mere asides on the journey to stardom and success. There are no villains in this movie. Not the hitman sent to kill a nightclub owner. Not the callous laxative magnate, nor Joe’s father when he is belt-whipping the young boy. Allen treats them all tenderly. Hell, even the Nazis in the film are presented off-screen and don’t pose a active threat to this world, a reflection of the cocoon that was provided to the narrator in his childhood.
We, the audience, receive these memories filtered through the young boy, wall-to-wall accompanied by big band radio hits from the era. Allen’s camera is inquisitive, often starting with a static shot, then unexpectedly tracking in to investigate the action. However, we never get too close to the action, like a fond memory where the details are starting to get sketchy. At Sally’s USO show, the camera reluctantly lingers at the back of the hall, when all we want it to do is pull tight in on Sally as she struggles toward her dreams.
In the Rockaway Beach scenes, Allen and Director of Photography Carlo Di Palma pack an incredible amount of bodies and detail into the frame, heightening the sense of a supportive community around Joe. He is surrounded by nutty but ultimately loving and sweet relatives. An uncle (Josh Mostel) brings home fish every day, suggesting they enjoy a red snapper to celebrate the New Year 1944. A single aunt (Dianne Wiest) pines for a man, any man, lamenting when the war takes them all overseas.
Radio Days comes chronologically smack-dab in the middle of the 12-year, 12-feature run when Mia Farrow appeared in every one of Woody Allen’s films. Here she plays a typically humble but strong character, refusing to let the misogynist show biz culture get in the way of her dream to be on the radio. She even hilariously works to change her heavy Brooklyn accent to something Trans-Atlantic. The scene of Farrow attempting to pronounce “Hark” in the manner proscribed by her dialect teacher alone makes the film worth watching. There is a suggestion in the film that Sally is too dumb to know when things are bad, but I like to believe Allen and Farrow created the character to be too willful, too focused on her dreams to allow such negativity to manifest itself in the first place.
The end of the film could be read as an attempt by Allen to minimize the importance of his own work, with the famous Masked Avenger radio star (Wallace Shawn) wondering aloud if he and his fellow radio stars will be remembered: “After enough time, everything passes. I don’t care how big we are or how important are our lives.” Allen, coming fresh off a flurry of awards for 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters, might have meant this film as a reminder for himself, or possibly a rebuke to the self-important members of the Academy.