Woody Allen shows his age, but in a good way. He takes a break from the romantically-convulated stories of many of his best films and focuses on a time he remembers fondly: the Radio Days.
The story takes place in the late 30s and early 40s in the New York area. Woody Allen narrates, telling the audience about his childhood as a boy named Joe (played by a young Seth Green) and his family as well. Even though he’s named Joe, the boy is most definitely Woody.
Joe loves listening to the radio, particularly a character named the Masked Avenger. Joe gets lost in the stories he listens to, but he’s not alone. His family members all have a particular program that they listen to. His mother loves the soap operas, his aunt dances to music over the radio and they all become enraptured with live news bulletins about the war and smaller stories domestically.
Through these vignettes, we see how powerful and unifying the radio was. Think about how you’ve seen those old photos of a family sitting around the radio, listening together. That’s what this is.
The story jumps around between Joe, his parents, his aunt Bea (Dianne Wiest) in her quest for love and also a woman named Sally (Mia Farrow) who wants to break into the radio industry.
Adult Joe narrates all these tales, and when he talks about Sally, he does so like he’s telling you what he just heard on the radio, like he can’t wait to describe it to you. Every time adult Joe speaks, he seems to be gushing with excitement, like “oh and then I’ve gotta tell you about Sally!”
It’s unlike any of his other voice over work in his films. The voice over always reflects the characters, but even in Manhattan when Isaac is fawning over his love of the city, he never sounds this excited. In a way it feels like Joe has never grown up, or simply when he talks about the radio days he becomes a child with wide-eyed wonder.
I might be wrong, but the way the story bounces around from story to story feels like it could be a radio program. Maybe that’s how it felt to Joe growing up. I got the sense that in these various radio programs, there was a cast of characters and shows and so much to keep track of. Woody brings that to the story with all these characters, existing in a single ecosystem.
While the characters on radio may have existed in separate realities, consumed by separate demographics, they were all contained within one world: the radio. Joe lets you know what everyone in the family and the community are doing because his New York community, like the radio programs, is a small, breathing universe.
I should touch on some of the plot. Sally is a waitress at a night club, and she witnesses a murder, but since she’s so simple and endearing, the mobster calls on a favor owed to him to get her into the radio business. She wants so badly to be on the other side of the radio while someone like Joe just wants to be in the world of the radio (similar to Cecilia in The Purple Rose of Cairo).
Actually, there’s something. In The Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody seems to be saying “that’s what it must have been like,” while watching escapist movies in the Depression Era. In Radio Days he’s saying definitively this is what it was like.
Anyways, Sally struggles through radio acting, and she finally goes to a diction class to reconstruct her voice for radio. In the end she begins dating the man who voices the Masked Avenger, and they go to the nightclub she once worked at for a New Year’s Eve party, welcoming in 1944.
We also see Joe’s family that same night, listening to the radio that is broadcasting the party at the same nightclub. Everyone is unified through this little audio box. They toast and bring in the New Year, everyone together in one place.
At the same time they openly wonder whether they will be remembered in the future, and they come to the conclusion that no, they will not. They will disappear. Jeff Daniels plays another radio hero who wonders aloud about the passage of time: “…so quickly and then we get old, and we never knew what any of it was about.”
Then they ring in the new year, and we end with Joe/Woody narrating once more: “I’ve never forgotten any of those people or any of the voices we used to hear on the radio. Although the truth is, which each passing of New Year’s Eve, those voices do seem to grow dimmer and dimmer.”
It’s a surprisingly emotional scene when none of the film has been emotional until that point. It feels like The Sandlot until it’s the end of Marley & Me. Because time does just keep on moving forward, and we’re supposed to be okay with it.
Woody’s giving the characters that defined his youth life. I’m trying to find a meaning to them wondering whether they will be remembered. Because it happens so quickly that they essentially say “will we live on after we die?” and Woody’s voice pops in to say “Yes but not forever.”
Up Next: The Magnificent Seven (2016), September (1987), Another Woman (1988)