Distant Voices, Still Lives

In 'radio days,' woody allen drew on his own childhood to show what it was like growing up in Queens, New York, in the Forties, when families united in front of a box with no screen to listen to music, comedy and news. In this remarkably moving memory piece, the British writer and director Terence Davies uses the radio to comment on his upbringing in Liverpool during the Forties and Fifties. While Allen cast a rosy, nostalgic spell in his film, Davies paints a Dickensian portrait of a working-class family tyrannized by a cold, abusive father (Pete Postlthwaite). For them, radio --- specifically, the music that poured out of it --- was more a necessity than a diversion. Through the popular songs of the day, they could express feelings barely hinted at in conversation.

The film opens in the Fifties, after the father has died, and his wife (Freda Dowie) and grown children (Dean Williams, Angela Walsh and Lorraine Ashbourne) are recalling his effect on their lives. In flashbacks we see his acts of cruelty, but the immediacy of his rage has receded with time. Not so the immediacy of the music. These are people who sang every chance they got --- in parlors and pubs, at parties, weddings and christenings. The songs, mostly disposable romantic pop on the order of "I Wanna Be Around to Pick Up the Pieces" and "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing," tell familiar stories of passion found and lost. But as Davies's camera picks up those same stories etched on the faces of his characters, the effect is shattering. When a forty-four-year-old man makes a movie about his family and friends sitting around singing old tunes, you certainly don't expect an unforgettable amalgam of humor and heartbreak. But that is precisely what Terence Davies delivers.

From The Archives Issue 556: July 13, 1989