Director Chris Petit Stars David Beames, Lisa Kreuzer UK/West Germany 1980 Language English, German 1hr 44mins Black & white
London could have been Helsinki, even Copenhagen!
There aren’t many legendary British indie films, and still less those made by an erstwhile critic. What Radio On feels like is the beginning of something that never was*. It’s both rooted in very British things, and yet fits into an international film story somewhere between the early films of Wim Wenders – who helped make it possible for Chris Petit to make this one – and the work of Jim Jarmusch (also mentored by Wenders) and Aki Kaurismaki. It resembles the films of those latter two in its framing, its pacing, the importance of songs, the taciturn characters, a retro feel for style (clothes, cars) – but not, crucially, in its sense of humour, which only surfaces fleetingly.
Radio On is the moody tale of Robert (David Beames), who DJs in a factory on the A4 and lives above a cinema. He sets off by road from London to Bristol following a family tragedy. The drive takes up a fair chunk of the film, and along the way there’s a sort-of amusing cameo from someone who was just about to become a huge star.
Then the German undercurrent that started off with someone listening to the German version of Bowie’s Heroes and the gift of three Kraftwerk tapes early in the film takes over and it rather randomly turns into a quasi sequel to Wenders’ Alice In The Cities.
This is a film in which a lot of miles are covered but not a lot happens and less is resolved. This is deliberate, but it also makes it hard work to watch. It’s nicely shot in high-contrast black and white, and the scenes on the road are good, as are some of the shots of far west London, for a long time the most modern part of the city.
But Robert isn’t an engaging character, even taking into account the fact that he is understandably traumatised. There’s a vague sense of a point or two being made – about politics, about England, but at this distance it’s hard to work out what those might be**. There’s enough to make it watchable, not enough to make it much more than that. Not unless you’re interested in the history of British film, in which case it’s a fascinating what-might-have-been.
*Chris Petit is still better known as a writer, I guess – he has directed other things over the years, the only one of which I have seen is London Orbital, the film about the M25 he made with Iain Sinclair. Best described as hypnotic.
**Other than the standard ‘English men aren’t comfortable with their emotions.’ Yeah. Anyway, for a more positive take, John Patterson, a former colleague and one of the best writers on film around, explains why he rates Radio On here. Patterson is probably right about what Petit was up to – Simon Reynolds also has some thoughts on that. All I can say is that I find Petit’s depiction of alienation, well, alienating.