By Alan Hurst
For the two of us, New Year’s Eve isn’t about heading out to a party, joining the throngs downtown or even making it to midnight. It’s more about hibernating and hunkering down after the social and gastronomical whirl of the previous few weeks with friends and family. Our perfect New Year’s Eve consists of coming up with a few resolutions that will be forgotten by February, sharing a bottle of something bubbly (this year a generously gifted bottle of Veuve Clicquot), enjoying homemade linguine with clams, and ending with an annual viewing of Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1987).
For us (well, me) Radio Days is the perfect New Year’s Eve movie because it comically combines the two prevalent emotions that are stirred during this time of year – a healthy dose of nostalgia about the past and a guarded optimism about the future.
Radio Days doesn’t have a linear story. It’s a series of vignettes set in the late thirties and early forties, centred in a Rockaway, New York household with multiple generations living together, against a backdrop of stories and characters from old radio programs. Most of the stories are told through the eyes of a young boy whose adult personae (Woody Allen) provides the narration linking everything together. Allen does a nice job with the narration – he knows how to tell a story and it’s obvious he has great affection for these people and that era.
Say what you want about the quality of Allen’s more recent work (not to mention the ever darkening cloud of his personal life), but during the late seventies and well through eighties he was at the top of his game as both a filmmaker and writer. Radio Days – which I think is a terrific film – came right after three gems: Broadway Danny Rose (1984), The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), with the superb Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) a few years away. That’s as good a run as anyone has had. Although Radio Days doesn’t have the reputation those other films do, it’s on par with any of them. Faulted at the time for being overly sentimental and simply an exercise in nostalgia, those are precisely the reasons the film works as well as it does. It is unabashedly sentimental and it brims with rose-coloured nostalgia for another time but what a fun ride that provides.
There really aren’t any lead characters in the film, but the core centerpieces of the stories include Joe the young boy (Seth Green), his parents (Julie Kavner and Michael Tucker), his unmarried Aunt (Dianne Wiest), and Mia Farrow as an aspiring radio star. Other characters/performers include Wallace Shawn as the Masked Avenger, Larry David as a Communist neighbour, Danny Aiello as a small time gangster, and Jeff Daniels as radio star Biff Baxter. And watch for a brief appearance by Diane Keaton as a band singer who pops up late in the film to deliver a beautiful rendition of Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” during the climactic New Year’s Eve vignette.
The entire cast is wonderful, but it’s Kavner, Farrow and Wiest who score the biggest impact with perfectly calibrated, naturally funny performances. Kavner is a hoot as the no-nonsense mother, Wiest is wistful and ever hopeful as the single sister looking for a husband, and Farrow evolves from a whiny voiced night club worker to a sophisticated radio star with comic brilliance.
The other stars of Radio Days are the film’s look and music. From the rain swept Rockaway street scenes to the neon elegance of Manhattan and Radio City Music Hall to the amber lit scenes in the family home – the visuals evoke a bygone era that probably never really looked this good or been so romantic. Allen’s love for the music of the thirties and forties – which has made its way onto the soundtrack of many of his films – has never been put to better use. His mixture of old recordings of ballads, up-tempo songs, and novelty tunes is a treat.
It’s in the final few minutes that the film tips its hat to New Year’s Eve as all the characters are celebrating the shift from 1943 to 1944. The film moves back and forth from a family party in Rockaway to a sophisticated supper club in Manhattan with an undercurrent of melancholy as everyone wonders – with a world still at war – what the future holds and if things will get better. Something that has definite resonance today. As Julie Kavner’s character says at one point while watching anti-aircraft searchlights light a darkened sky during a blackout: “It’s so beautiful. Boy, what a world … it could be so wonderful if it wasn’t for certain people.”
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.