Sound Salvation: Radio Unnameable

09/19/2012 4:00 AM |

Radio Unnameable
Directed by Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson

There’s a sequence in Radio Unnameable in which a man calls into the venerable WBAI radio show on the brink of suicide. Host Bob Fass talks to him until the line goes dead, at which point the station “stays” with the listener by playing music to him until authorities confirm he’s being treated. There may be no fan-performer bond in art or entertainment that is more intimate than this one: that between a great radio host and a listener who’re on the same wavelength (so to speak). Bob Fass’s longtime listeners clearly feel that kind of connection with him, but precious little of it comes across in Paul Lovelace’s and Jessica Wolfson’s well-meaning but passionless documentary. It’s too fawning and spends so much time putting Fass in a cultural context that he doesn’t come across as the vital voice the parade of talking heads professes him to be.

A life-spanning documentary is the wrong format for this story. The turbulent 60s were the key period in Fass’s life, and after the film passes that era it struggles to find purpose. A battle to unionize WBAI is thin soup compared to Fass standing on the frontlines of violent protests, though the film oversells his influence in that time. (He was more of a chronicler than an instigator.) Kasi Lemmons’s 2007 Talk to Me covers much of the same ground but is infinitely more powerful by narrowing its focus and anchoring itself to Don Cheadle’s complex performance as 60s D.C. DJ Petey Greene. Focus and complexity are two things sorely lacking here; no interviewee has the heart to even tangentially criticize Fass.

Performers like Fass, who essentially improvise a coherent hours-long monologue each show, don’t get the respect they deserve, while radio itself is ephemeral and invisible in a way that obscures its influence and impact. Radio Unnameable starts with a man who hosted pivotal musical acts and broke new ground with free-form radio, and ends with that same man looking for a place to store his boxes of tape archives. The poignancy of that final scene only underscores how much is missing up until there.

Opens September 19

One Comment

  • Bob Fass never wanted to be a focus of his own show, his specialty was and is.. letting the guests actually become the program…guests and listeners, or sometimes just the listeners..and sometimes just the “theme” running through the air became the program, and the whole “pastiche” would just be creating itself each night over Radio Unnameable. He used everything…snippets of news or poetry, or clips from the media, or sound effects…or previous shows. He uses montage in many ways.. and mixes it together in very moving and effective ways..the effect being the feeling of the whole gestalt definitely greater than the parts…and how powerful it all was and is. So he never wanted the focus to be on him personally…his own “personna” was besides the point and this body of work and fun was and is about democracy and access and openness and acceptance of innovation and novelty, as well as political astuteness and a conscious progress of a cultural explosion which started well…around the time he took to the airwaves and somewhat before. His job as he saw it was to kind of hold a mike up to the new sixties (and later) outlooks and struggles and play it as it came through. He is not one to be hero-worshipped like some shlock corporate (and usually political backwards) DJ or “star”. The historical excellence of the program speaks for itself and I assume the movie brings that out, at least hope it does…..! But to the extent there is a “worshipful” attitude towards this gentleman, than the movie is certainly conveying the wrong idea. So I hope that’s not what’s going on too much there.