On the use of nostalgia and family in Woody Allen’s 1987 comedy, Radio Days.
“It’s so beautiful. Boy, what a world… it could be so wonderful, if it wasn’t for certain people.”
I love nostalgia. I love film. And nobody marries the two quite as effectively as Woody Allen. Midnight In Paris served as a wonderful exploration of our fond feelings for the past, deconstructing why we yearn for years gone by, and suggesting that our lives may prove to be just as meaningful if we focus on the present instead. It remains one of my favourite movies in recent memory.
Radio Days plays the trope straight – but never comes off as any less enjoyable. It’s a semi-autobiographical, loving ode to the power of radio during Allen’s upbringing in the early forties. By using his sprawling ensemble cast to focus on the glamorous stars of the airwaves, as well as the families at home listening, he successfully conveys the sense of scope and meaning this medium held back then – from cultivating music tastes, to entertaining minds both old and young, to uniting a country over a disastrous piece of breaking news.
While there’s a powerful poignancy in its nostalgia trip, Radio Days is at its strongest when it draws its emotion, humour and heart from the lovable quirks of family life. Much like his finest film, Hannah And Her Sisters, Allen showcases the imperfect little world of a large, extended family, highlighting each character’s flaws and failings in great detail – but that only really makes them more endearing to the viewer. Whether its Seth Green’s troublesome young Allen stand-in, Joe, or his secretive, self-deprecating father (Michael Tucker), or Dianne Wiest’s aunt who’s so desperate for love, you can’t help but adore each and every one of them.
Disjointed pacing and narrative have often undermined my enjoyment of many of Allen’s comedies in the past. Scripts like Bananas‘ tendency to jump around can disconnect you emotionally from the characters. Radio Days is guilty of this at times – in reality it’s a series of wacky vignettes/scenarios that all relate to radio in some way. Fortunately, the entertaining recurring characters and Allen’s quietly amusing narration helps the film flow better than it should. Ultimately, it’s another well-made ensemble piece from the writer/director that deserves to be considered amongst his best work.
A few years ago I owned a hybrid radio/alarm clock. I always used to have BBC Radio 5live on in the background when I was (not) doing my homework. As an avid football fan, it initially served as a low-effort way of keeping up-to-date with the Premier League, but the rest of the station’s content quickly rubbed off on me. After sixteen years of blissful ignorance, I began to take an interest with what was happening in the world. And I still credit the station with helping ignite my love of cinema – thanks largely to the good doctor/resident film critic, Mark Kermode. Nowadays, I rely on a lot of my movie news from podcasts. It’s not the same, but it’s nice to know that, over seventy years on from its heyday during this film’s events, radio’s had a lasting effect.