“(A)s I write these words there is almost a physical intensity to my memories of listening to the radio. Television was never the same. Television shows happened in the TV set, but radio shows happened in my head.” – Roger Ebert
The late great Mr. Ebert wrote those words in his review of Woody Allen’s “Radio Days”, a wonderful and requisitely wistful remembrance of the way things were when the radio was king. It was released in 1987 and yet even if the radio was already in the process of becoming a relic in the mid-80’s, it held some sway, and never more so than with National Public Radio’s “Star Wars” dramatizations, a 13 part serial which my dad recorded to cassette tape when it premiered and which I would listen to, perched intently at the foot of those massive standing speakers set up in our basement family room. I connect “Star Wars” to those tapes as much as I do to the DVD’s sitting on my shelf.
In 1981, George Lucas, often derided for vanity and greed, often derided for vanity and greed by me, sold the rights to NPR to serialize his space opera gravy train on the radio for a mere $1. He provided all the legit “Star Wars” sound effects as well as John Williams music score, and while only a few of the original actors (Hammil, Antony Daniels as C-3PO) appeared as themselves, the fill-ins held their own. Perry King served up some serious gruffness as Han Solo. Ann Sachs made for a fiery Leia. Brock Peters was a different yet no less effective Darth Vader.
It seems ludicrous, probably, to imagine a product as visual and effect-y as “Star Wars” being re-imagined entirely as an auditory experience, but then it shines a spotlight on how the strength of the original trilogy really was its story. Then again, there was not necessarily enough story there to sustain an entire serial, and that is why, as NPR recounted last year to coincide with the release of The Force Awakens, they had science-fiction novelist Brian Daley come in and punch up the drama with further backstory and extra scenes amidst the scenes culled from the movies.
Included in those extra scenes are a few in which Leia acquires the plans to the Death Star, which I mention because “Rogue One”, the new “Star Wars” offshoot, set for release later this year, its big teaser trailer dropping today, centers around the acquisition of those plans. In the context of these scenes for the serial, Leia feels more like the major player that the actual film only really hints at her being, allowing us to see all the espionage that goes into a heroically treasonous Imperial Senator going after the Galactic Empire. This is never more apparent than in her faux-courting of some self-impressed bureaucrat named Lord Tion, all a means to an end, to get at the plans. And when her cover is blown, what she does, and what she convinces her father to do, and that is played by Sachs with an incendiary out-of-breath desperation, is bone-chilling, and takes “Star Wars” to a raw kind of place the movies have mostly avoided.
I get the sense that Gareth Edwards is not going to avoid it either, and I think that's a good thing. I think “Rogue One”, standing apart from the series just re-ignited, should embrace the chance to do something else, much like the Radio Dramas did so long ago, and hone in on character and render the proceedings more mentally tense than casually heroic. I confess, I have had trepidation about my memories of this radio drama, which are so indelible, being compromised, or completely usurped. But then, Edwards' debut, “Monsters”, excelled specifically at striking your nerves not with what you could see but with what you could not, and so if any director has the skill to make a movie that invites your imagination as much as his, I suspect it’s him. I’m in, teaser trailer or not.