“He’s fabulous” - Meryl Streep
“This man is a cultural institution” - Tom Hanks
“He’s always been such an energy and such a force” - Eva Mendes
“He’s got it. He completely understands the community” - Tilda Swinton
“He puts the work in, like we all do. He works hard” - Johnny Depp
These testaments aren’t for some heavyweight movie producer, super-agent or award-laden director, they’re for a man with a shaggy grey beard and straggly hair who rides around New York City with plastic bags hanging off his handle bars like an urban pack mule and a radio dangling from a piece of ratty string tied around his neck. If you saw him in the street you might dismiss him as some down and out, another bum who’d crapped out and lost his mind. You wouldn’t pick him as one of the best known people on the New York film scene; Radioman.
This locally-famous eccentric is the subject at the centre of director Mary Kerr’s first documentary, Radioman, which goes behind the façade of this “character” as he plays his own part in the movie business.
What that part is, is a little hard to define. He’s sort of a cheerleader/mascot/perennial extra. His job (and I think the work he puts in qualifies what he does as a job) involves him travelling to the film sets, premieres and after parties around New York. He’ll chat to the crew, the cast, hang out with the stars, raid the craft table, and if he’s needed, do some work as an extra. There’s no pay and he’s not invited, but he’s always welcomed. He possesses a huge, sincere, natural enthusiasm about the actual process of making a movie, which seems to endear him greatly to those in the business.
The story of how he became Radioman is wayward, as you might expect, and includes a particularly dark period of alcoholism, homelessness and a stint in Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. The turning point came in 1990 when he came across the set of Bonfire of the Vanities where, after watching a scene, he shouted what should become an immortal phrase “Bruce Willis, your acting looks like a fucking cartoon!”. He ended up talking to the cast and crew and hanging around the set. This first taste of the actual business of making movies gave him an appetite and soon he was dedicating his life to searching for film sets to hang out on.
For such a disparate life, Radioman’s story is laid out and told in an impressively coherent and compelling way by Kerr. The quality of the footage and sound is a little rough and ready, but it fits with the overall approach of the documentary. A high gloss finish would have distanced the viewer from Radioman and his life on the streets hustling, but thanks to the low-key filming approach we feel much closer to the action and Radioman himself. The use of “pro-sumer” technology also aids transitions between Kerr’s footage and the old stock footage sometimes used, as well some footage shot by Radioman himself. It all allows the documentary to unfold in an easy to digest manner.
As for themes, there is never any obvious objective or agenda for the piece. There’s no voiceover or other device to guide the film down a certain path, but the obvious question would seem to be; “why”? Why bust your ass for hours upon hours to find sets to visit where all you do is hang out and get no material gain other than some free food? Is it the thrill of meeting the stars? Of being at the sharp end of the movie business? Is it the feeling of recognition he gets? All of the above? The question of ‘why’ is a hard one to answer and is left open to speculation, which may leave some viewers feeling slightly unsatisfied.
What we do have with Radioman though is a story about a man who didn’t fit into the standard mold. For whatever reason, the stable job and family life didn’t suit him. He suffered for this, as many do, but overcame the numerous obstacles, some self-made some made by others, to bring himself to a place where he has a huge list of credits as an extra, a few speaking parts, a re-occuring part on 30 Rock, his own documentary, and is appreciated, recognised and most importantly of all, happy. Radioman is the story of a fascinating life confidently told.