“Radio Unnameable,” Paul Lovelace and Jessica Wolfson’s documentary portrait of long-time late-night free-form radio personality Bob Fass is at once a flavorsome local history, a celebration of the broadcast medium, and a movie that approaches the tired subject of the ’60s counterculture from a fresh angle.
An off-Broadway actor, Fass joined New York’s first listener-sponsored radio station WBAI as a staff announcer, then, taking his rubric from the title of a Samuel Beckett novel, held down the after midnight-to-five graveyard shift, sometimes five nights a week, from 1963 through 1978. He was taken off the air when a civil war broke out at the always fractious station but, after five years in exile, returned on a limited basis in 1983 and now, nearly 80, continues to work Thursday nights.
Greeting his audience and the sleeping city with a mellow “Good morning, cabal,” Fass was at his height both baby-sitter and rabble-rouser. With an affect at once warm and cool, he was more laid back than wired; still, however soothing, his Brooklyn-inflected voice was not without an understated sardonic edge. And, however free-associational his rap, Fass was not primarily, or even secondarily, a monologist. Rather, he used to airwaves to construct a community. In addition to conducting interviews that were mainly after-hours hang-out sessions, he took calls from anyone — sometimes three or four or more at once.
Fass’s capacity for improvisation was considerable. “Radio Unnameable” devotes a chunk of time to the night he spent talking to (and ultimately saving) a caller who had taken a suicidal dose of pills. No one was too nutty. Radio Unnameable lavished hours on the craziest of conspiracy theorists. Each show was unpredictable, but throughout the ’60s and later, Fass was reliably heavy on folkie performance. Bob Dylan was a fixture in his Positively 4th Street days, as were fellow coffee house luminaries Phil Ochs and Dave Van Ronk. Arlo Guthrie first performed Alice’s Restaurant on Fass’s show; the movie excerpts tapes in which Fass introduced then unknowns Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon to New York. Radio Unnameable was also something of a clubhouse for the New Left’s greatest showboats: Paul Krassner and Abbie Hoffman were regulars. Fass broadcast live from the streets outside the 1968 Democratic Convention and was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the subsequent trial of the Chicago Seven.
While Fass and others speak directly to Lovelace and Wolfson’s camera, the archival audio material is accompanied by an evocative collage of nocturnal Lindsay-era New York street scenes. Much of the movie is constructed around orchestrated events — the early 1967 Fly-In Fass contrived at JFK, and the East Village Sweep-In he organized during the following year’s garbage strike. There is also 16mm footage of the 1968 Yip-In held in Grand Central Station that culminated in a police riot vividly annotated by the eye-witness reports phoned into Fass’s show.
“Radio Unnameable,” which opens Wednesday at Film Forum, is a time capsule that draws on the thousands of hours of audio tapes that Fass managed to preserve; to hear them again after all these years is to recognize that Fass was in a sense New York’s quintessential (East) Village voice — the great ongoing commentator on unbelievable oddness of boho life in Mayor Lindsay’s “fun city.”