Radio Days (1987) Blu-ray Review: Twilight Time Strikes Gold(en Age of Radio)

Although I was one of those kids born at the very tail-end of the Generation X era – a mark in history that rendered me sufficiently incapable of clicking with anyone from my own generation or the one that followed – I was also a kid who had that non-too-rare-these-days distinction of being raised by my grandparents, who were born at the very beginning of the Greatest Generation. Which, of course, made it even harder for me to click with people in the long run, but which I like to think was a good thing overall. In fact, having been raised by folks who were very much in the know way back before the world became “civilized”, it was as if I had some sort of carte blanche when it came to learning all about that which is no longer in common practice today.

And one of those things was radio. For today’s clueless youth – seemingly unaware that the handheld devices they’re coming dangerously close to becoming surgically attached to are capable of accessing things such as information and knowledge as well as sharing duckface pics and nude public bathroom selfies (although I do have to admit I like seeing the latter) – it’s almost unfathomable to think that there was once a time when there wasn’t so much as a box-shaped television set without a remote control, either. In its stead was a radio set: a magical, mystical box with a dial, speaker, and delicate glass tubes – a combination of excellence that transported the world around us into our homes, as well as Orson Welles’ controversial The War of the Worlds (an event that proved some people were just as stupid then as they are today).

Fortunately for my grandparents and myself – as well as millions of other people, old and young alike – there was a resurgence of the popularity with old time radio in the ’80s. While Freddie Mercury attempted to get the message across a few years before with “Radio Gaga”, it wasn’t until Independent music labels began to issue tape and CD sets featuring (usually the same) broadcasts of classic shows such as The Shadow (with Orson Welles!) or Fibber McGee and Molly that people began to notice. But perhaps no artist or group was able to capture the magic and drama of what life was like then – which most of us can only imagine now – as Woody Allen with his 1987 Orion Pictures project, Radio Days.

Nearly devoid of Allen’s usual madcap modus operandi and rapid-fire quips, Radio Daysgives us a rare, honest and warm motion picture here . Actually based on a number of Allen’s own childhood recollections of growing up in the ’30s and ’40s when radio was still a serious contender for America’s main source of entertainment. Our auteur even goes so far as to spare (?) his audience of his visual presence, as Woody instead narrates the feature in the most somber and emotional tone he can muster (which still sounds like Woody Allen, granted, but…) as an aged fellow named Joe. And who’s that playing the younger version of Joe? Why it’s an eight-year-old Seth Green, boys and girls! But while Green’s Joe is indeed a reflection of our storyteller’s past, he is by no means the story’s one focal point. There are many of those at play in this instance, just like there were once many radio stars.

In fact, Allen’s frequent habit of employing an ensemble cast to display the lives and loves of many characters really pays off here. On the homefront, Joe’s Jewish-American household struggles with the everyday plights of a working-class family, where Dianne Wiest searches high and low for the right man as Joe’s aunt (Welles’ The War of the Worlds comes into play for this character, as well), while Joe’s dad effectively manages to never tell his son what he actually does for a living for many years. Meanwhile, in the city, we set our attention on the happy-go-lucky charms of a cigarette girl (Mia Farrow) with big dreams of becoming a radio star – even with that nails-on-a-chalkboard voice of hers.

While Allen’s own younger onscreen self grows up around us, his older behind-the-camera self unveils the fabrications set upon the world by revealing the men and women whose voices thrilled, captured, and delighted several generations at once. The iconic radio program hero The Masked Avenger is brought to life by Wallace Shawn, which swiftly brings the famous joke about having “a face for radio” into play. Jeff Daniels is also seen – briefly – as another radio serial hero (and if you look real closely, you’ll see a then-unknown William H. Macy too). Diane Keaton appears towards the finale to sing in her smallest part in a Woody Allen feature ever as a popular singer (and who delivers a heartwarming rendition of “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” in the process).

Also featured in Allen’s coming-of-age/looking-back-at hybrid are Danny Aiello as a gangster, Kitty Carlisle as a Maxwell House jingle singer, Michael Tucker and Julie Kavner as Joe’s parents, Reneé Lippin and Josh Mostel as Joe’s other aunt and uncle, Mike Starr and Paul Herman as two burglars who wind up winning a contest on the phone while breaking into a home, Kenneth Mars as one of cinema’s greatest rabbis, and the one and only Don Pardo as a radio show host (naturally). The supporting cast is even longer than that, as Allen brings in many a familiar face or voice just long enough to catch your eyes or ears before adjourning to another scene in what proved to be one of the filmmaker’s most lavish productions (just check out those costumes and sets!) highlighted even further by dozens of classic songs.

While Radio Days failed to makes its money back at the box office when it first premiered in January of 1987, the film nevertheless managed to find its target audience over time: from the people who could relate such as my grandparents, to people who weren’t even there but still heard all about it like myself. Since then, the movie has gone on to become a classic just the same, and Twilight Time proudly presents us with a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer of the film, as made available to them by the folks at MGM. The presentation itself is an above average one, effectively bringing us the well-balance tones of Carlo di Palma’s photography. A DTS-HD Master Audio lossless Mono English soundtrack highlights the pop/hiss-heavy recordings of old-time tunes mixed with the much more defined film sound quite masterfully.

A second audio option with Twilight Time’s Limited Edition Blu-ray provides viewers (and listeners) with an isolated score and effects track in DTS-HD MA 2.0. Apart from a generic promo for MGM’s 90th Anniversary (which is included on all of the recent Twilight Time MGM titles), the only other special feature to be found with this release is a Teaser Trailer for the feature (from 1986) that essentially shows us an image of an old radio set while Don Pardo reads off the names of the actors and actresses who appear in the film in one form or another. Very quickly, at that. Inside the Blu-ray’s case, however, Twilight Time’s Julie Kirgo provides us with yet another fine essay on what is most assuredly one of Allen’s crowning achievements, but what could quite literally be one of cinema’s best examples of bridging a generational gap or two. Highly recommended.

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Luigi Bastardo

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