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Radio Days (1987) is Woody Allen's paean to the golden age of radio, a kaleidoscopic and autobiographical look at the radio programs that were an essential part of his childhood. Seth Green plays Allen's alter ego, an adolescent growing up surrounded by his extended family in Brooklyn during World War II. The radio is a constant presence in the family's lives, from the boy's obsession with the heroic Masked Avenger, to his spinster aunt's passion for the latest pop tunes, to his mother's fascination with a glamorous Park Avenue husband and wife who describe their milieu of showbiz and nightclubs on their breakfast show. Allen shows the radio backstage world as well. The heroic Masked Avenger is a short, balding actor, the sophisticated perfect couple is less than devoted, and the showbiz world somewhat tawdry. It's a world where a not-too-bright but ambitious cigarette girl (Mia Farrow) can become a star by being at the right place at the right time. But in the imaginations of the Brooklyn family, they are all fabulous, and it's that flight of imagination that radio let soar that Allen celebrates.
Radio Days followed one of Allen's most ambitious films, Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and seemed to be done for comic relief after the emotional complexity of the previous film. Allen himself told interviewer Stig Bjorkman, "I think of Radio Days basically as a cartoon. If you look at my mother, my Uncle Abe, my schoolteacher, my grandparents, they were supposed to be cartoon exaggerations of what my real-life people were like." Allen himself narrates the film, in the first person.
Allen's use of music in his films has always been masterful, and Radio Days is one of the finest examples of his mastery. In fact, he told Bjorkman, music was the original starting point for the film. "It originated from an idea that I wanted to pick out a group of songs that were meaningful to me, and each one of those songs suggested a memory. Then this idea started to evolve: how important radio was to me when I was growing up, and how important and glamorous it seemed to everyone." There are 43 songs used in the film, and some standout musical moments. In one scene, a teenage girl lip-synchs to a Carmen Miranda song, her head wrapped in a towel turban, watching herself in the mirror. Her father and uncle, charmed by her charade, join in. Near the end of the film, it's New Year's Eve 1943. Diane Keaton, in a cameo as a band vocalist, sings (in her own voice) the Cole Porter standard that expresses the longing of a war-weary nation: You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To. Allen says, "I wanted to make sure, since Diane was making one little appearance in the picture, that the song was potent." It was.
Radio Days marks the only time that Allen's two longtime companions and muses - former flame Diane Keaton and his then-current partner Mia Farrow - appeared in the same film. Keaton has remained friends with Allen over the years; Farrow has not. After a bitter, litigious, and highly publicized breakup, Farrow remains estranged from Allen and her daughter, Allen's wife Soon-Yi Previn.
Reviews for Radio Days were mostly raves, although there were a few dissenters, such as the always-acerbic John Simon of the National Review, who called it "really a congeries of blackout sketches barely bothering to make like a connected narrative, scoring now and then and falling flat the rest of the time." But Variety called it "One of Allen's most purely entertaining pictures. It's a visual monolog of bits and pieces from the glory days of radio and people who tuned in.... Radio Days is not simply about nostalgia, but the quality of memory and how what one remembers informs one's present life." Roger Ebert compared it to Fellini's Amarcord (1973). "What they evoke isn't the long-ago time itself, but the memory of it." Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times, "Radio Days is so densely packed with vivid detail of place, time, music, event and character that it's impossible to take them all in at one sitting." Allen's warm, funny screenplay and Santo Loquasto's nostalgic and detailed art direction both received Oscar® nominations.
After Radio Days, Allen returned to more somber, complex stories, starting with September (1987). It was a cycle that would last through several films, before he took another purely comic break with Manhattan Murder Mystery in 1993.
Director: Woody Allen
Producer: Robert Greenhut
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Cinematography: Carlo Di Palma
Editor: Susan E. Morse
Costume Design: Jeffrey Kurland
Production Designer: Santo Loquasto
Music Director: Dick Hyman
Cast: Seth Green (Little Joe), Julie Kavner (Mother), Michael Tucker (Father), Dianne Wiest (Aunt Bea), Josh Mostel (Uncle Abe), Renee Lippin (Aunt Ceil), Joy Newman (Ruthie), Mia Farrow (Sally White), Wallace Shawn (Masked Avenger), Danny Aiello (Rocco).
C-89m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri