With the advent of 1987’s Radio Days, we complete MGM’s massive DVD releases of Woody Allen’s films. They didn’t contain all of his flicks, but they own - and have released on DVD - 19 of his 31 self-directed movies (through 2001’s The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, his most recent film).
That’s a substantial chunk, and it’s been an interesting ride. Personally, I’ve come to like Allen more than I used to through my trek through these discs. When I was younger, I loved a lot of his work, but I grew much less fond of him over the years. I still feel pretty unenthusiastic about Allen, but I’ve definitely developed some greater interest through the DVDs.
Although most people would choose his earliest work as his best - found in the eight-disc Woody Allen Collection 1971-1980 - I most looked forward to the final collection of flicks from 1982-1987. Some of Allen’s Seventies flicks work for me, especially 1975’s Love and Death and 1977’s Oscar-winning Annie Hall, but the films prior to those seemed too silly and inane, and the ones that followed them were excessively pretentious and self-conscious.
The movies that came after those found in 1982-1987 suffered from some similar qualities. Allen became overly artsy and lost touch with the humor that had worked so well for him. 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors offered a satisfying combination of comedy and drama, but other flicks like 1987’s September and 1988’s Another Woman provided boring, superficial character pieces that went nowhere.
Allen’s movies from the middle Eighties seemed to combine many of his strengths but omitted most of his weaknesses, and I find them to be the most consistently satisfying of his career. 1987’s Radio Days completes this series with a bang.
Radio Days doesn’t attempt much of a narrative. Instead, we see vignettes from Allen’s semi-fictionalized childhood. The film uses a young doppelganger named Joe (played by a very small Seth Green) and we watch the antics of his extended family as well as see stories from the golden age of radio. A number of characters emerge, but a minor regular develops in the form of Sally White (Mia Farrow), an aspiring radio star whose career we follow through a few different anecdotes.
In spite of itself, the film integrates quite well. Allen meshes the pieces together in a neat manner and keeps the program moving at a good rate. The characters all border on stereotypes, but they manage to pack in enough warmth and humanity to rise above those concerns. Green’s particularly good as little Joe. Actually, Allen often picked fine young actors to portray him; Green stands out as the only one to go on to future success, and he’s funny and winning here.
Farrow also provides a terrific performance as the rising celebrity. Her appearances help connect the radio tales and she offers a wonderfully comic and bubbly take on the character. In the spirit of the piece, Farrow keeps Sally cartoony, and she reminds me of Lina Lamont from Singin’ In the Rain. The part feels like she belongs to this nostalgic look at a bygone era, but Farrow adds enough heart to the role to make it endearing.
Days nicely shows the ways people lived vicariously through celebrities in those more innocent times, but Allen doesn’t simply indulge in bland nostalgia. He also gently takes the radio heroes down a peg or two, as we see the silliness behind their apparently golden lives. Allen never does this in a malicious manner; he always keeps the tone affectionate and sly.
Ultimately, Radio Days finds Woody Allen in his most successful milieu. He works best when he sticks with light, warm and humorous pieces, and Days falls squarely into that category. Some may consider it insubstantial compared to his more dramatic programs, but I think the latter are too pretentious and forced. Films like Days succeed because they come close to the heart of the director, and they seem like the strongest expressions of his true nature.
Life imitates art footnote: one of the Radio Days vignettes tells of a child who falls down a well. The nation unites around the radio as they follow the rescue attempt. Days came out in January 1987. In October 1987, infant Jessica McClure dropped down a well, and the country obsessively trailed the endeavors to save her. Spooky!
Radio Days appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. While the picture showed some concerns, as a whole it came across fairly well.
Sharpness generally appeared crisp and distinct. On a few occasions, the image came across as mildly soft and fuzzy, but those instances were rare. Overall, I thought the film seemed well defined and accurate. Some moiré effects and jagged edges appeared, but those were modest, and I saw no problems related to edge enhancement.
Days featured a moderately golden tone to its palette that accentuated the period tone of the film. At times, the colors came across as a little heavy, but these concerns were fairly minor. Overall, the movie used its restricted palette well, and most of the hues appeared acceptably clear and vivid. Black levels looked reasonably deep and rich, and shadow detail was a little bland but low-light shots were clear and visible.
For the other Allen movies in this set, print flaws caused the most concerns, and a few cropped up here as well. However, they seemed lighter than usual. I saw a little grain at times, and occasional grit and speckles appeared. In addition, a few streaks cropped up along the way. Nonetheless, the movie remained fairly clean most of the time, and I thought it offered a reasonably solid visual experience.
As with virtually all other Woody Allen films, Radio Days offered only a monaural soundtrack. Despite the restrictions of the format, the mix sounded pretty decent. Dialogue was acceptably natural and warm, and I discerned no concerns related to intelligibility or edginess. Allen movies feature few substantial effects, and Days followed suit; its various elements seemed clean and accurate, but they didn’t add much to the production.
Music was limited to a degree due to the period tunes utilized, so some of them were a bit thin. However, I felt the music generally seemed nicely bright and distinct, and the songs showed fairly solid depth at times. Ultimately, the soundtrack of Radio Days rocked no worlds, but it worked fine for the material.
Apparently Woody Allen doesn’t care for DVD extras, which is why none of the DVDs for his films include many. That is also the case for Radio Days. All we find are some entertaining production notes within the four-page booklet and the movie’s theatrical trailer.
In my estimation, Radio Days marked the end of an era for Woody Allen. He had a nice string of modest but warm and witty flicks in the middle Eighties, and Days was the last of this line. Happily, it finished the cycle well, as the movie was a consistently funny and entertaining look at times long gone. The DVD offers good but unspectacular picture and sound plus only minor extras. Overall, Radio Days is a solid piece that merits the attention of both Allen fans and those not as familiar with his work.
Note: Radio Days can be purchased on its own or as part of the Woody Allen Collection 1982-1987. The latter also includes Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and Hannah and Her Sisters. Unlike packages such as The Oliver Stone Collection or The New Stanley Kubrick Collection, 1982-1987 tosses in no exclusive extras, but its list price of $99.96 is about 17 percent off of the separate cost of all six movies. As such, it would be a nice bargain for anyone who wants all of the different films.