December 11, 2013 Sections
Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
AH, the '60s.
In that tumultuous decade, the closest thing to what we now call "social media" was talk radio, a malleable force that could reach out to a populace to entertain, outrage and even mobilize.
So it was in New York City with the introduction of an all-night show called Radio Unnameable, hosted by actor-turned-DJ Bob Fass,
"DJ" is an inadequate description, actually. Fass would spin records, to be sure, but with the freedom afforded him by public radio station WBAI, he might play a record he liked twice in a row, or all night long, if he chose.
Sometimes, he might play two recordings at the same time. He would engage in monologue and dialogue. He felt free to experiment with aural soundscapes.
Again, it was the '60s.
Because Fass was one of the few voices on radio in the night shift, he gained a considerable following in the city that never sleeps.
He played host to the likes of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. Arlo Guthrie's first public performance of Alice's Restaurant was on WBAI. Same with Jerry Jeff Walker's Mr. Bo Jangles.
As the country's youth became more radicalized during the escalation of the war in Vietnam, WBAI (and Fass) reflected the change of temperament, bringing "fringe" culture and viewpoints to all of New York.
Filmmakers Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson have a huge library of amazing audio clips to work with (including Fass telling Bob Dylan in the mid-'60s that he really should do something about his singing voice). They also have Fass himself, still active (and the antithesis of the '60s burnout), as well as a host of friends and colleagues including Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, Jerry Jeff Walker, Paul Krassner and Wavy Gravy, all expounding on what an extraordinary force for change Radio Unnameable was.
The film does cover the history of the show from the '60s to the present day in scrupulous fashion. But its value is as an almost nostalgic record of a time when popular culture -- especially radio -- wasn't exclusively defined and dictated by moneyed interests.
Excerpts of reviews of Radio Unnameable:
Mr. Fass narrates old war (and antiwar) stories with vivid clarity and impeccable timing, and his accounts are fleshed out by a Greek chorus of friends, co-workers and fellow travellers.
-- A. O. Scott, New York Times
A treasure trove of both visual and aural footage makes this terrific doc a keeper. Its affectionate appreciation of one man's long, strange trip through history makes it a helluva lot of fun.
-- Joe Neumaier, New York Daily News
Radio Unnameable is at its best when it tries to find some visual analog to Fass' vibe, courtesy of cinematographer John Pirozzi, who takes beautiful snapshots of a sleepless city.
-- Scott Tobias, AV Club
Directed by Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson
31Ñ2 out of five stars
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 15, 2013 D3