Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Radio Days (1987) The Power of Nostalgia

On the rare occasion I get back to my hometown in Cadillac, Michigan, I always stop by G & D Pizza to get what may very well be the best slices of pizza I've ever had. The taste of it takes me back to the mid-1980's when it was enjoyed as a lunch during school days or a late-night snack run during the weekends. Many memories from those days - good memories - are peppered with G & D pizza slices. If I eat them while listening to say, Dokken or KISS (which Cadillac has a connection to during the 1970's), then the nostalgia goes into overdrive.

The five senses can easily trigger nostalgia, and some more than others. The sense of hearing is one qualifies as one of the top triggers. Come on, admit it: you hear a song that played during a time in your life that was a big, red pin on your memory map and you get chills. Or you get sad. Or angry. Or you swoon. Everyone has a song - or even a whole soundtrack - that holds a place in their past.

In 1987, Woody Allen wrote and directed a fond love letter to the radio's golden age, the slice-of-life film, Radio Days. It stars a huge cast, mostly as the family which serves as the basis of all the vignettes and asides. A very young Seth Green stars as Joe, who is the narrator (Allen) as a boy. It might as well be Allen himself, but he does serve the stories up on a fictional plate. He lives in a crowded household with his parents (Michael Tucker and Julie Kavner), his aunt and uncle (Renee Lippin and Josh Mostel), their daughter (Joy Newman), his grandparents (William Magerman and Leah Carrey), and another aunt, the lovesick Bea (Dianne Wiest). The movie spans the years 1941 through New Year's Day, 1944, before television had come along and the greatest home entertainment you could get was on the radio.

There really is no plot to the movie, rather a series of short stories and vignettes. The older Joe as narrator reminisces about life as a young Jewish kid in Rockaway, New York, and how radio was central to the daily lives of different characters. He talks of how radio influenced him and led him to "collect" stories about the radio business, which results in the parallel story of naive, heavily-Brooklyn-accented, wannabe-radio star Sally White (Mia Farrow) as she struggles to achieve fame.

Sally's story takes her from being a cigarette girl in a nightclub to a witness to a mob murder, but her ditzy personality and hometown charm convinces the mobster (Danny Aiello) to help her out in a very funny scene. Just before her big break, Pearl Harbor is attacked and her fame will just have to wait. She shuttles from job to job before taking elocution lessons, which lead her to be one of the posh radio stars enjoying the very same nightclub at which she started. It's a sweet, often funny journey that makes you root for the never-say-die Sally.

Wallace Shawn voices The Masked Avenger

Much of the film is ranges from sweet to funny. Joe tells the story of how his desire for a Masked Avenger (voiced by Wallace Shawn) compartment ring leads him to a "life of crime" by keeping the proceeds his Hebrew school instructed him to collect to help support a new state in Palestine (indeed, Israel would be formed about seven years later). This gets him in huge trouble, as expected. Joe talks of his Aunt Bea and her search for love, included one hefty fellow trying to get fresh before he's scared off by radio reports of Martians landing in New Jersey. Songs remind Joe of specific memories, such as his cousin dancing to Carmen Miranda's "South American Way" or his first time kissing a girl he liked or attending a movie at Radio City Music Hall.

However, there is one very poignant scene devoid of narration and entirely chilling. When a little girl falls down a well, people from all walks of life stop what they're doing and listen. Not watch, mind you. They listen. The rich, the poor, men, women, children, everyone is glued to their radios. And when it's over, it can be summed up when the father, who had just been spanking young Joe with a belt for a chemistry set accident, holds his son close as life solemnly moves on. It's a brilliant, beautiful scene tied together only by the voice of the radio reporter on the scene.

While I tend not to gush over Woody Allen, I will not deny his place as one of the great directors. I have always believed him to be a fantastic craftsman. Radio Days is a movie I can watch anytime; it's comfortable and yes, nostalgic. I was not a kid in the 1940's, although I feel that way some mornings. But Allen paints such a gorgeous picture of New York life during the heyday of radio, that it's one of those stimuli that prompts me to wonder what it would have been like to have lived then.

When you watch the movie, it's fun to play "spot the star." William H. Macy has a wordless role as one of the performers with Sally when news arrives of Pearl Harbor. Jeff Daniels makes an appearance. Diane Keaton has a cameo as a nightclub singer. Also take a look for Mike Starr (countless films, such as Goodfellas and The Bodyguard) as a burglar in the beginning, Don Pardo as a game show host, Tito Puente as a bandleader, Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) as a communist neighbor, the late Rebecca Schaeffer as the communist neighbor's daughter, and several others you'll just have to spot yourself.

It's a sweet-hearted movie, a definite love letter to 1940's radio and 1940's New York. It's funny, poignant in parts, with genuine love for the characters. It speaks not only to the power of radio and the spoken word, but to the strength of nostalgia, and how long-gone performers and certain avenues of artistic expression will live on in the memories and minds of those who promise to remember them.

Now me, I'm hankering for a slice of G & D pizza and a music block by Def Leppard...


Pax Romano said...

I love this film; made my Dad watch it a few years back and now he has his own copy.

"...with the passing of each New Year's Eve, those voices seem to grow dimmer and dimmer. " And that's when the chills run down my back and I get all misty eyed.

Dod said...

Yeah, I *love* that line! It really is a sweet film - time makes every memory distant, and dimmer.