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