Blu-ray Review: Radio Days - Twilight Time Limited Edition

By , Contributor
Woody Allen’s 1987 nostalgia piece Radio Days is the work of an artist who, having achieved his peak, was given the opportunity to indulge in his most inconsequential, haphazard whims. At first glance, all the hallmarks of a Woody Allen classic are in place, including effortless authenticity from a large ensemble cast and impeccable production values (honored with an Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction). But it doesn’t require too close of scrutiny to realize that this brisk 88-minute film is lacking truly memorable characters. It’s a momentum-free blob, albeit a superbly crafted blob.

As the capper to his mid-‘80s run of four irreproachable classics, no one can really fault Allen for wanting to put a cherry on top of his cinematic sundae. Exploring his youth via a kaleidoscopic array of eccentrics should’ve yielded gold, even while maintaining a decidedly light touch. But the way he approached the dawn of mass media during the radio-drenched days of the mid-1940s was, in a word, shapeless. Omnipresent narration (courtesy of Allen himself) takes the place of narrative invention. We see the world through the eyes of young Joe (Seth Green), yet the narration tells us of things the boy would’ve never known. At its best, Radio Days feels like Allen’s take on A Christmas Story (without the holiday theme, although New Year’s does factor in fairly prominently). But Allen’s not patient enough to develop Joe into a universally-related character, the way Ralphie was. In fact, Joe is more often than not simply cast aside to make room for more side characters.

Radio Days (216x280).jpgAllen revels in a more innocent era, at least in terms of what was broadcast into American homes. Decades before the dawn of cable news networks, the nation was united by the real-life rescue attempt to save a girl trapped at the bottom of a well. It’s a matter of public record that the girl was dead before workers reached her. Allen drops this significant episode, arguably the only element that carries any truly formidable emotional weight, into what would be the film’s third act (if the Oscar-nominated screenplay actually had any real structure). Is this the moment that a nation of newly voyeuristic media-consumers first learned the consequences of having real-time access to tragedy? Or is it perhaps a comment about how families and friends were united over their breathless hopes for the best, bonding even more strongly over the experience? It was probably both of those things, but Allen’s casual treatment leaves the moment hanging limply before he moves onto something else.

Between Joe and his chums, Joe and his family (including memorable turns by Michael Tucker and Julie Kavner as Joe’s parents), and Joe’s radio idols, Allen seems intent on filling every moment of this relatively brief film with dazzling business. And it is often dazzling, with Allen re-creating the heyday of radio broadcast studios in a way lesser films, say George Lucas’ Radioland Murders, never managed. Without ever wearing out their welcome, Allen’s in-studio moments with the like of Mia Farrow, Wallace Shawn, and Jeff Daniels are romantic and exciting. But the presence of these Allen collaborators (the cast also includes Tony Roberts, Diane Keaton, Danny Aiello, and Dianne Wiest) also contributes to the sense that the director was more interested in sending a Valentine to his stock players than telling a cohesive story. Nostalgia and whimsy might’ve been enough to sustain a feature-length film had there been more genuine laughs, but even Allen’s wit dries up after a frequently funny first act.

Specialty label Twilight Time brings Radio Days to Blu-ray for the first time with a marked technical improvement over the previous DVD. This is the third Allen film they’ve handled (fourth if you count The Front, in which Allen starred but did not write or direct). As good as Crimes and Misdemeanors and Broadway Danny Rose looked, this one might be the best yet. Aside from the occasional speckle of print debris, the transfer is terrific. The warmth of Carlo Di Palma’s cinematography comes through as clearly as anyone could expect. The DTS-HD MA mono soundtrack is crisp and free of fidelity issues; nothing fancy, but boasting a fuller presence than the old DVD version.

As for special features, all we get is an isolated music and effects track and the original theatrical trailer. Not surprising given the dearth of supplements usually found on Allen’s films. The booklet essay by Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo makes an excellent case for Radio Days, citing the film’s many genuine virtues. I’m not sold though. In the end, as much as there is to admire, Allen gives us nothing to hold onto. Rather than linger in the mind long after watching (the way Allen’s best movies do), this one fades rather quickly.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray edition is strictly limited to 3,000 copies. Visit Screen Archives to order while supplies last.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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