English Title: Radio On
Country of Origin: Britain
Studio: BFI, Road Movies FilmProduction GmbH/Unifilms
Director: Christopher Petit
Producer(s): Keith Griffiths
Screenplay: Christopher Petit
Cinematographer: Martin Schäfer
Editor: Anthony Sloman
Runtime: 104 minutes
Bristol, the late Seventies. The German version of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ plays on on a radio by a bath in which a man lies dead. Next morning in London, his brother Robert, a somewhat anomic factory DJ in the midst of a break-up with his girlfriend, is told the news by phone. Robert leaves London by motorway but travels to Bristol by country roads, meeting an army deserter from Northern Ireland and, near the site of the singer’s death on the A4, a young man obsessed with Eddie Cochran. In Bristol, Robert finds his brother’s girlfriend; neither was aware the other existed.
Robert falls in with two German women, one of whom, an English-speaker, is looking for her absconding husband and daughter. Suspecting his brother was involved in an illegal pornography ring, Robert helps her – though the search, like their brief encounter, is inconclusive. He spends another night in his brother’s flat before drifting out into the city. After some drinks he drives to a quarry, gets stuck, and leaves his car there with Kraftwerk’s ‘Ohm Sweet Ohm’ playing on the tape deck. Later he catches a train, destination unknown.
Ever since its première at the 1979 Edinburgh Film Festival, Radio On has been treated as a one-off, a ‘film without a cinema’ existing outside what its tyro writer–director Chris Petit saw as the prevailing social realist tradition of British cinema, ‘strangled by class’. While it shuns character, narrative, and politics as normally construed, Petit’s film establishes a relationship with the ‘Angry Young Man’ cycle begun two decades prior by the very strength of these negations. Like Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man! (1973) it is a road movie, but one systematically denuded of social commentary.
Not that the distance between Anderson’s cohort and the generation of young German directors Petit looked up to should be overstated. Discussing Radio On, Petit has often quoted a famous line from his mentor Wim Wenders’s film Kings of the Road (1976): ‘The Americans have colonised our subconscious.’ Jimmy Porter, the original Angry Young Man protagonist of John Osborne's 1956 play Look Back In Anger, similarly wondered if ‘perhaps all our children will be Americans.’ Addressing different concerns from different angles, Petit's film is as much a ‘state of the nation’ film as anything in Anderson’s oeuvre.
Petit’s successors at Time Out, where he had been film editor, wrote at the time that his debut ‘represents that turning point away from the hopes of the ’60s’, a mood established by its protagonist’s withdrawal (he is the anti-Jimmy Porter, a DJ where Jimmy was a jazzman); by its extraordinary soundtrack; and above all by its textural attentiveness to interiors and landscapes, urban, rural, and coastal. Radio On is a prime example of what Manny Farber in a Film Comment essay called ‘the Seventies dispersed movie’ (1977: 47), a phenomenon straddling the Atlantic that eschewed the ‘big statement’ for ‘lower-case observations’. The opening sequence, likely inspired by Antonioni’s road movie The Passenger (1975), explores the inside of a flat in a single snaking shot, seemingly indifferent to the dead man in the bathroom. The film reaches an early epiphany with a sequence that evokes novelist JG Ballard’s early 1970s’ trilogy of Crash, Concrete Island and High Rise, both in its imagery – Robert driving over the Westway, tower blocks glinting in the winter sun, and by its soundtrack – David Bowie’s ‘Always Crashing in the Same Car’.
While there is no plot to speak of, no great transformation, Petit loosens up a little as Robert heads west. For a film that begins with a suicide, contains prominent references to the Northern Irish Troubles, and is suffused with melancholy, there is a kind of humour to Radio On that is often missed by latter-day admirers, who have tended to want it to do exactly what Petit did not – make a big statement on the Thatcher era, dawning just when it was shot. It is the narrowness of Robert’s failure to make connections that makes the film interesting and, in its way, hopeful.
Author of this review: Henry K Miller
Peer reviewer: Henry K Miller