Of all the Philip Dick adaptations that have been made, this might just be the most religiously faithful to the source material, and that faithfulness might just be its undoing.
Radio Free Albemuth could be considered an extension of (or possibly a warmup for) Dick’s famed Valis trilogy, which would occupy him until his death in 1982. The manuscript was written in 1976. Dick’s editor at Bantam Books, upon reading the manuscript (originally titled VALISystem A), made suggestions which led to what was essentially a complete rewrite. VALIS was published in 1978, and Radio Free Albemuth was to languish amongst his papers until it was found and published posthumously in 1985.
It is perhaps for this purpose that the film finds its setting in 1985 (approximately ten years later than the novel’s setting). Nicholas Brady, a Berkeley record store clerk, following the behest of an otherworldly voice speaking through his dreams, transplants his pregnant wife to LA and takes a job with a record company as a recruiter of new music acts. Nick calls this voice VALIS, or Vast Active Living Intelligence System. His best friend Phil would eventually move down the coast to follow them. They are living in an alternate version of 1985 America, one in which the country has fallen under the iron grip of President Richard F. Fremont (Scott Wilson).
As Fremont is considering running for his fifth term, Brady begins uncovering evidence linking Fremont to the Communist party of southern California and the fallen Soviet Union. It is perhaps these investigations which spark the interest of the Friends of the American People. FAP is the Gestapo-like youth organization which seeks out and prosecutes political subversives. Nick meets another whose visions are likened to his, a plan is struck which quickly unravels, and everything falls apart, leading to what could only very charitably be called a state of paranoid hopefulness by film’s end.
The cast is a great mix of new faces, relatively recognizable faces, and a couple of surprising casting coups (if a glowing space angel starts talking to me in my dreams, I don’t think I’d mind if it had Rosemary Harris’ voice). During a dream sequence, Nick first becomes aware of the existence of Sylvia, the woman who he will eventually meet and discover a bond beyond the physical or even emotional (much to his wife Rachel’s confusion). As Sylvia played her guitar and sang her song, I personally remarked how much the woman singing sounded like Alanis Morissette. The camera drew closer to the woman, and found, much to my surprise, Alanis Morissette in the role of Sylvia. Hey, I’m a spoiler avoider. I went into this screening completely blind. Overall, the casting is perfect. Jonathan Scarfe’s Nick, Shea Whigham’s Phil, and Katheryn Winnick’s Rachel succeed as the primary cast, convincingly portraying three people whose friendship is being tested by extraordinary events. Some of the scenes flow more smoothly than others, but there is a comradeship between the three of them and throughout much of the rest of the cast that holds things together.
The production quality is something of a shortfall, unfortunately. Many of the film’s scenes have the disposable look of a daytime soap opera (are those still around?), and it’s hard to remember that the film is supposed to be taking place in mid-80’s LA. While I applaud Producer/Director/Writer John Alan Simon’s decision to not make this film an 80s punchline with big hair and shoulder pads, it is still jarring to see late-model minivans and SUVs on the streets behind our 1985 protagonists. Although, on that count, I did catch the silver Delorean parked in the parking garage during one scene, so I’m winking right back at you on that, Mr. Simon.
One of the binding ingredients of this particular story should be the music. It plays an integral part in the plot, after all. It’s central to the main character’s entire journey from record store clerk to record industry executive, right? Yet, the music just never really seems to be that important until very late in the film. This is by no means the fault of the music itself. For his part in the film’s music, Robyn Hitchcock (I know, right?!?) remains true to Simon’s unwillingness to stoop to shameless 80s retro schlock by crafting music that is unbounded by time. Even Phil’s presumably 70s punk rock that blares while he works at his typewriter is largely indistinct and could be an uptempo bit of aggression from nearly any post-Beatles rock and roll era. If anything, Hitchcock’s talents are underused, or at least underplayed.
But the real strain on this production, in the end, is the adaptation itself. Simon hugs the source material with a well-deserved devotion. Entire passages and even dialogue is taken by rote from the novel. Faithful adaptations are a rare commodity, to be sure (check out most of the other Philip Dick film adaptations – even the good ones are far removed from their sources). In the novel, we go on a journey with two people. We are deep inside their thoughts, glimpsing every aspect of their lives. We grow through 200-odd pages with the characters. This kind of intimacy establishes allowances for even the most outrageous of ideas to settle in and take root. Film, in its immediacy, very often doesn’t offer that sort of charity. We are forced to accept and move on, whether we can digest the information or not.
And, make no mistake, Radio Free Albemuth stretches for concepts that aren’t in the typical Hollywood sci-fi canon. Let’s face it, the entirety of Judeo Christian scriptural tradition as sourced from interstellar beings attempting to offer us support against our oppressors is a hefty case to build in less than 110 minutes of film. Because I had already been through that journey in Dick’s own words, I was able to relax and enjoy the performances and the effort of the movie. I think diehard PKD fans can appreciate the dedication that went into the production. I have no doubt it was made with great passion on the part of John Alan Simon. I would even go so far as to dare say that Philip Dick himself would be generally pleased with this adaptation.
Even if you have simply read and enjoyed the novel, I would recommend it. But without that prior investment, I’m afraid this film, despite the intact messaging from the text, stretches plausibility beyond what would be palatable to the casual viewer.