Radio Unnameable: BAMcinemaFest Review

Radio Unnameable - H 2012

Radio Unnameable - H 2012

Doc rescues a late-night NYC DJ from obscurity.

Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson's documentary follows New Yorker Bob Fass, host of a long-running NYC radio show.

NEW YORK — Arguing for the cultural importance of a figure known largely to an insular group of admirers, Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson's Radio Unnameable finds community among the isolated New Yorkers who, for reasons of temperament or graveyard-shift employment, need a radio for company in the wee hours. Likely to find a small but receptive audience here, it also has just enough broader significance to merit small-screen circulation beyond its built-in fan base.

Starting in 1963, New Yorker Bob Fass hosted a program on non-commercial WBAI that epitomized what came to be known as freeform radio: an unpredictable mix of talk, music, and audience call-ins defined solely by what was on his and his listeners' minds. The agenda mightn't have been to promote new artists, but Fass wound up hosting the first performances of such period-defining songs as "Mr. Bojangles" and "Alice's Restaurant." The informal nature of the venue is summed up nicely here, with a clip in which a listener tells Bob Dylan that "it'd be great" if he could learn to sing better, and the songwriter responds, "well, I appreciate that.

Fass embraced a quasi-journalistic role as well, taking his tape recorder to Sixties protests and staying in the studio during others, giving airtime to eyewitnesses of police brutality. Discovering how vast his listenership was, he initiated "Be-in"-type events for both social and political reasons; counterculture figures like Abbie Hoffman became regular guests.

Lovelace and Wolfson chronicle this era with plenty of talking heads, in-studio audio and video material, and an atmospheric array of anonymous-looking film of NYC street life. Fass doesn't come across as a particularly fascinating man, but it's easy to see how his interests and dedication helped anchor a substantial scene.

As the Yippee/Hippie age trailed into Seventies identity politics, predictable clashes broke out at WBAI, pushing Fass off the air for a number of years. The film's account of his ouster and return is less compelling than what precedes it, illustrating his opponents' faults but (despite being clearly in his corner) not showing what, 50 years down the road, he has to offer listeners beyond sheer persistence.

Venue: BAMcinemaFest
Production Company: Lost Footage Films
Directors-Producers: Paul Lovelace, Jessica Wolfson
Director of photography: John Pirozzi
Editor: Gregory Wright
No rating, 87 minutes.