Rarely leaving the claustrophobic offices of a San Francisco-based Persian specialty radio station, Iranian “Radio Dreams” is a witty, low-key exercise in deferred gratification, as the small staff wait with increasing anxiety for the day’s star turn: a scheduled appearance from Metallica. The U.S. heavy-metal act has been booked to jam with Afghanistan’s finest headbangers — but will Lars Ulrich and Co. show up? A Rotterdam Tiger win for writer-director Babak Jalali’s Jalali’s sophomore feature, which makes good on the promise of 2009’s “Frontier Blues,” may provide the necessary assist to help arthouse auds discover this quietly satisfying gem. Still, the pic’s phlegmatic air of unassuming good humor poses a marketing challenge: It can’t be presented as the kind of worthy prestige pic currently likeliest to attract attention in the Western market for Middle Eastern cinema.
It’s a big day for Pars Radio. Thrash-metal legends Metallica will be dropping by the studio to jam with Kabul Dreams, here appearing as themselves: A real act from Afghanistan, inspired by Western rock, they have flown in specially to appear alongside the more established band. Under Jalali’s confident stewardship, the circumscribed world of the struggling radio station becomes the perfect microcosmic stage on which to deftly play out global tensions of profit vs. art, East vs. West, isolationism vs. assimilation, and pragmatism vs. idealism.
Acclaimed Iranian folk singer Mohsen Namjoo is ideally cast as an Iranian literary grandee, Mr. Royami, now employed as the irascible station manager. With the hair of Albert Einstein, the pompous air of latter-day Bob Dylan and melancholic deep-set eyes that speak to the character’s own self-image as a master of inferior puppets, he’s possessed of a ludicrous idealism that elicits almost as much sympathy as it does exasperation. (Boshra Dastournezhad is a standout among the supporting players, sketching the financially astute daughter of the station owner with Aubrey Plaza levels of deadpan misanthropy.)
Royami is the heart of the film: It is his sincere and artistically principled dream of a musical union between East and West, between Metallica and Kabul Dreams, that fuels the film’s engine. The memory remains of his former cultural eminence, but Royami is clearly struggling to find his niche in the U.S.; watching him, we gain the sense of a former emperor reduced to a king of nothing. Yet Royami remains an optimist, believing that in music, humanity can find the harmony that eludes us in other arenas. For him, the heavy-metal collaboration represents the possibility of peace, an olive branch offered by both sides following the horrors of the conflicts in Afghanistan.
Other interested parties sense in the rockers’ guest spot a different kind of opportunity: The public interest piqued by advance word of their booking has enabled the station to sell local commercials for fast food, as well as for dermatologists specializing in the latest depilatory techniques for hirsute women. Naturally, the ads are hilariously terrible, delivered live from cheesy scripts with cheap, unrepentantly intrusive keyboard jingles. Yet they are necessary: The radio station is entirely ad-supported, a practicality that Royami would prefer to ignore.
As the light fades and the day’s programming draws to a close with no word from Metallica or their reps, Royami’s vision seems to lie in tatters. Considering the preceding actions’ occasional triviality — a wrestling-related subplot starts well but goes nowhere very much — the subsequent events achieve substantial emotional heft.
Suffice it to say that Metallica fans in the audience won’t be entirely disappointed. Drummer Ulrich puts in a late appearance, and he’s a poignantly appropriate presence for this film. As he’s sometimes been the butt of jokes in the drumming community for his lack of technical prowess, his role in the success of Metallica has always been less about metronomic precision and more about street smarts, spirit and matching the character of James Hetfield’s monster riffs. Likewise, the climactic jam session at Pars Radio is not about putting together a perfect virtuoso performance; it’s about the warmth of what the brief collaboration so fleetingly represents.
The final result may be dictated by necessity and circumstance, but it fits the bittersweet worldview of “Radio Dreams”: Nothing ever works out quite the way you hope. This idea is never more perfectly realized than when the film cuts between a heartbroken Mr. Royami, his American Dream apparently a mirage, and Kabul Dreams having the time of their lives. The concept of proud ambition strung along by a tardy celebrity playing himself in a knowing cameo is not a new one in comedy, but this level of cultural resonance feels fresh; originality often lies in the treatment of the material, not the material itself.
Lensing by Noaz Deshe (director of 2013’s remarkable Tanzanian-set festival favorite, “White Shadow”) retains a docu-style realism throughout, with handheld cameras evoking the likes of Greg Daniels’ improv-friendly TV comedies even as the chilly palette of blues, grays and teals fosters a more downbeat mood. Strong critical support plus further festival prizes surely await; whether this can be parlayed into a successful theatrical release depends on skilful pitching from distribs. Wherever it roams, however, “Radio Dreams” should be welcomed with open arms by the Iranian diaspora, treating as it does the subject of integration with such an enjoyably light touch. Arguably, if it can connect with that audience, nothing else matters.