Friday, 7 November 2014

Radio Free Albemuth [2014]

RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH is an American sci-fi drama that was written and directed by John Alan Simon and officially released in June 2014.  It stars Jonathan Scarfe, Shea Whigham, Katheryn Winnick, Alanis Morissette and Hanna Hall.  Adapted from Philip K. Dick’s novel of the same name, the film concerns Nick Brady, a Californian record store employee who comes to believe that the voices he hears in his dreams are actually broadcasts from an alien satellite.



The first thing to mention about this movie is its production history.  As I understand, shooting began in 2010 and a ‘work in progress’ cut was shown at a few festivals the following year.  Then, as is the case with more films than you might imagine, it ended up in post-production hell.  Whether funds ran out, creative people moved on or they just couldn’t produce a workable cut I haven’t yet been able to determine; whatever the reason, nothing happened.  The film was saved thanks to the rise of the crowd funding phenomenon; in this particular case Kickstarter.


The second thing to mention is the source novel which, like the film, had an unusual publication history.  Written in 1976 it was in its first incantation a barely-disguised account of Dick’s own experiences with what he believed to be an alien intelligence.  When it was rejected by his publishers he rewrote it, with a greater fictional element, as an intended trilogy of novels.  Unfortunately, Dick’s premature death in 1982 left the trilogy unfinished.  He had completed the first two novels (‘VALIS’ and ‘The Divine Invasion’) but ‘The Owl in Daylight’ did not get much further than initial plans.  An unrelated novel (‘The Transmigration of Timothy Archer’) was posthumously added to complete the trilogy.  In 1985, a different company got hold of the rights to the rights to ‘Radio Free Albemuth’ and published it in its own right.

Phil at work


I ashamed to say I can’t say much more than that about the novel since it is, at time of writing, one of the few remaining books by Philip K. Dick that I haven’t read.  However, I can say that the film contains many of the elements that will be familiar to fans of his, that is to say: intelligent alien life; totalitarianism; undercover police; alternate realities; marital problems; and drugs.  That’s a heady brew of themes by any measure, especially in Hollywood, so it’s perhaps a surprise that there have been a reasonable number of Philip K. Dick adaptations over the years.  What’s less surprising is that most of them have kept the bare bones of the plot and jettisoned what made them interesting in the first place, i.e. all the metaphysical stuff.

VALIS


The first properly faithful adaptation I’ve seen was Richard Linklater’s A SCANNER DARKLY [2006] and RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH is the second.  Of course, I say that without having read it but I flatter myself to think that I’m familiar enough with Dick’s work to be able to tell when something is faithful to his spirit.  Indeed, it may be that the determination to reproduce that spirit played a part in the difficulties experienced in getting the film released.  I say that because, frankly, it espouses revolutionary politics and direct action; neither are themes that Hollywood is comfortable with.

President Fremont (Scott Wilson) addresses the nation


One of the vehicles used by the revolutionaries for disseminating their message is music, specifically rock music and, more specifically still, one particular song.  So a problem faced by director Simon was how to depict this convincingly in his film.  He solved one part of it by casting a proper musician (but non-actor), Alanis Morissette, in a central role and by hiring a proper songwriter, Robyn Hitchcock, to pen the song.  It really works too.  Not only is the song sufficiently catchy it is also cleverly crafted (as you would expect from Hitchcock) to convince you that it could serve its subliminal purpose.

Nick and Phil go before the authorities (note President Fremont's image on the wall)


I think there’s a considerable risk inherent in films about people hearing voices and / or being directed by some sort of mystical guidance.  It can result in the film having a drippy new age feel to it or, in the worst case, have overt religious connotations.  RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH avoids that for the most part.  Indeed, at one point, Phil confronts Nick about whether he believes himself to be Jesus.  In fact, the film ends with a proper philosophical discussion about the purpose of faith and how it should be put to work changing things on the material plane rather than merely as some vehicle to get to the afterlife.  Philip K. Dick’s novels are full of stuff like this so if that, or indeed this film, appeals to you then I would urge you to read some.

Shea Whigham as Phil


I found Jonathan Scarfe to be a decent enough but rather bland leading man whereas Shea Whigham was born to play Philip Dick’s characters.  He’s terrific in this: part slob, part genius, part doper, part revolutionary.  Whigham has really only had supporting parts to date (you might recognise him from the disturbing TAKE SHELTER [2011] or the equally disturbing but riveting TRUE DETECTIVE season one) and that may be all he ever gets, but he’s a fine actor.

Alanis Morissette as Sylvia


Alanis Morissette hasn’t done a great deal of acting but I was rather impressed by her turn here and she should definitely consider doing more.  She has a naturalness about her as an actor which comes as a surprise to me because her singing style is somewhat mannered, to say the least.  The veteran actor Scott Wilson, who by my reckoning has had at least three careers, first came to prominence as one of the murderers in Richard Brooks' fine adaptation of IN COLD BLOOD [1967].  He then seemed to get stuck in very run of the mill Hollywood pictures before rising to prominence once more as Virgil in the excellent TV series THE WALKING DEAD

To date, RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH represents the entirety of John Alan Simon’s writing and directing career and given the tortuous circumstances surrounding its production it may be the last.  He has a day job though so not to worry: he’s the man behind the production / distribution company Discovery Films.

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