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The road movie is among my favorite genres, and "Radio On" ranks with
the best of them. Co-produced by Wim Wenders, the master of the
existential road movie (whose production company is called "Road
Movies," no less), it was made in 1979 by Christopher Petit, who had
been a film critic for London's "Time Out" and received funding from
Wenders and the British Film Institute to make this film. One very
clearly sees an admiration here for Wenders' road trilogy, particularly
"Kings of the Road," but "Radio On" extracts the essence of Wenders'
style and the soul of the road movie and forms a sort of concentrate
from it. This is a meditation *on* the road movie, but on lots of other
In a film with very long shots and many lonesome scenes with no dialogue, nothing feels superfluous. Lengthy, lingering shots from behind the driver's seat of a moving car with music from Kraftwerk's "Radio-Activity" could very well come across as empty, but in this movie, they don't. Each shot is given ample time to sink in, and they do. Petit has made a movie, rich in its sparseness, that depicts alienation and inward-seeking as effectively as any Wenders film, and like Wenders, there are echoes of Edward Hopper's paintings here in the evening streets lit by streetlights, and in the beautiful moment where we see two characters, British man and German woman, each standing behind separate hotel room windows, staring out pensively as we pass by from a motorway bridge.
The man in the window is Robert, the film's central character, and he is traveling from Camden to Bristol to seek information about the death of his brother. That his name is Robert will likely slip the viewer's mind, as what's important about "Radio On" and the road movies of Wim Wenders is that the central characters are not too sharply drawn, and only a vague set of circumstances are established to give their journey the semblance of purpose. This way, the characters are ciphers, blank slates, and we take this journey with them by inhabiting them, by projecting our own sensibilities onto them, and to that extent, films like "Kings of the Road," "Radio On," and Wenders' later and similar "Until the End of the World" are as purging as a road trip itself.
All of the characters in "Radio On" look like they are brooding, but they don't talk about why, they simply brood and they keep moving while doing so.
Angst and alienation are both factors, but so is the fact that the world is changing. From a small, wintry spot on the globe, change is just around the corner and the characters feel it in their bones, if not yet in their heads.
The energy of the music of David Bowie, Wreckless Eric, Devo and others penetrates the meditative pace and makes these imminent changes palpable in the film's ambiance, or more accurately, in its aura. The movie's calm is an eerie and temporary one, like when the shoreline recedes prior to a tidal wave.
As the title would suggest, the music is one of the principal elements here.
I will indelibly associate Bowie's "Heroes" and Wreckless Eric's "Whole Wide World" with this film. Here, they are like the sun of a new decade rising to melt the snow of the 1970s. Or like a curtain call for an age.
And there is genuine poetry in the dialogue.
The German tourist explains to Robert that her friend hates men. Robert observes, "There's no word for that in English. The only word is for a man who hates women," and we understand that there is sadness in this fact, even if we can't articulate why.
The movie is beautifully conceived and structured, and it is structured both loosely and mindfully. It moves slowly, but it's spontaneous. Sting appears briefly as a filling station attendant, in a wonderful scene where he talks about the death of Eddie Cochran, strums his guitar, and sings "Three Steps to Heaven" from the back of his camper. The film ends as we hear Kraftwerk's "Ohm Sweet Ohm" beaming out from a car radio on the edge of a cliff, and home sweet home is precisely nowhere. This movie is quiet, slow, low-key, but it gets under the skin and is ultimately quite stirring.
"Why do the English want to live by the sea?"
"Last resort...? (silence) It's never as good as they think it will be..."
Saw this last evening at the local arts cinema in Newcastle. And what a magnificent British art film this is; ex-Time Out film critic Christopher Petit, spurred by the twin influences of the road movies of Wim Wenders (co-producer) and the incipient post-punk scene. There are scenes, glimmers and furrows which sometimes only later come through to haunt the mind; the whole stands as a brilliantly paced and sustained aesthetic reflection of decay and despondency. The Britain of 1979 is often simultaneously beguiling and deadening; great symbolic tower-blocks on the way out of London, desolate countryside heading west... so much that you feel could give root to extensive, restlessly ruminative Iain Sinclair or Paul Morley annotation.
This film is indeed about more than 'plot', though it hangs on the path of a man who is shown going about his typical, elliptical life in London, where he seems to be a holed-up DJ for some obscure station. His 'show' is jarringly shown playing in an industrial work setting; presumably to those who cannot hear - is this use of music perhaps not so far from the choric Alan Price in "O Lucky Man!"? After a time, he begins a car journey to Bristol in search of 'answers' regarding the unexplained death of his brother; which is possibly, though never definitively, linked with a pornographic movie racket - reported in radio news bulletins - in the West Country. I could make few spoilers that would seem significant, though points do jab out at you; particularly in the sense that expected explanation or fruition occasionally seem on the cards. But, hauntingly, we are left to puzzle things out ourselves; which may well be a pointless task if one is to think in usual, lateral patterns...
The main actor does a wonderfully minimal job, as is best with this sort of project; a face that moves only a certain amount, and when needed; above all, a face that reveals itself as the blank canvas mask that we alone can choose or otherwise to feel the emotions through. He is a guide, but rightfully not one we are encouraged to easily identify with; though at times, I certainly can. The landscape, the lyrically still, gently moving camera, the haunting, 'dehumanized' pop strains of Bowie, Lovich, Kraftwerk; these phenomena bring out our responses... Or rather the cumulative effect does. It is only perhaps broken by the unnecessary interlude with Sting, which shows the man with a good deal of smugness, even back then and within this film. This is unfortunate considering it follows relatively soon after the slow jukebox tableau, the camera tapering around the pub for the whole duration of a Wreckless Eric song on the jukebox. So little happens that the mere act of one figure hitherto seated getting up and leaving the establishment takes on implausibly moving dimensions.
Surely it was not just me who was moved impossibly by the sudden move to a hauntingly wistful bucolic scene? This fairly brief shot is lit and framed magisterially, contrasting with the previous Beckettian Suicide-comedy on the cliff-top, with Kraftwerk's "Ohm Sweet Ohm" spiralling on to heights of tinpot-music box melancholia. This film marks out an approach that sadly was not taken up in British film-making more widely; it takes its time to get precisely nowhere, and yet everywhere, in comparison with so many things we call 'films'.
I had the pleasure of attending a screening of 'Radio On 'presented by its
director Chris Petit.
Often described as "austere", and rightly so, the influence of Wim Wenders is immediately clear, but unlike Wenders' which films try to hide a sense of self importance behind lengthy banality it is this film's very understatedness that is the key to its (limited) success.
Halliwell's described this as a film "barely able to summon up any interest in its characters" although it is the very detached and unemotional stance of Petit towards his lead that makes this such an unbearably real portrayal of disenchantment, we begin to feel disenfranchised with humanity itself.
Pointless Trivia: At the premiere screening of this film no one recognised the lead actor amongst the crowd as he has a shock of orange hair undetectable in a black and white movie).
This is one of Britain's forgotten films (only 4 IMDb reviews at the
time of writing these comments, nearly 30 years after it was made). The
first film by the then film critic Chris Petit, made in 1979, it
conveys accurately the bleakness - and the depressing music - of the
The plot is minimal. A morose, alienated man learns of his brother's death and travels from London to Bristol to find out more. The 'quest' is half-hearted and his encounters on the road and in Bristol are unsatisfactory and unfulfilled. Nothing seems worthwhile following through. whether it is his investigation into his brother's life and death, his encounter with a German woman or even his relationship with his antique Rover car.
The B/W photography is splendid, matching perfectly the mood of alienation and the bleak picture of a part of England in the winter of 1979. The influence of Wim Wenders (the producer) is clear but it is very distinctively an English film, worth seeing and listening to if only to remind us of the dismal '70s - but having seen it, that's enough. Interesting, but not a classic.
Opening scene: like a badly lit YouTube video with camera tracking
around a dingy flat in the dark.
A lot of dinge. Silences devoid of talking but staring from back of head off out into alienated nowheres.
Perpetual gloom is hungover every scene. This is England of 1979. Looking as bleak and despondent as I remember it. Thatcher the milk-snatcher had just come to power.
Not just dark and dim, but dull the first time i saw it. The plot is minimal and pointless (i.e beside the point) Concerned more with observational detachment than motivational character development. It's got a morose London Dj driving his Rover past monolithic tower-blocks out towards the desolate west country. Listening to Kraftwerk tapes sent by dead brother.
Dj like an alienated mopey nobody passively drifts into and out of various encounters of estrangement with other alienated mopey no-bodies (Sting still tries to be Sting though as a solitary and subdued petrol attendant singing Eddie Cochran on guitar).
This is Wim Wenders country. The existential road movie switched from soul-less autobahn to empty A4. Wenders cinematographer (Martin Schafer) is doing all the b/w monochrome melancholy with the camera. Even got Liza Kreuzer from Alice in the Cities looking for her daughter Alice (from Alice in the Cities?). Maybe she's in Weston-Super-Mare. Lets go there.
This has become a cult film. Critics liked it because it tried to be different, i.e the same as their beloved Wim. A cool German art-house sensibility transplanted to 1970′s England. Makes it feel like a depressingly depressive place. Even more depressingly depressive than it is now.
As enigmatic as its title, Chris Petit's debut film is interesting
visually, but less so in other respects, particularly narrative drive
and character depth. To be perfectly honest, it starts slowly and
decelerates from there, with David Beames' disillusioned disc-jockey
setting out to ostensibly look into the death (in his own bath) of his
brother. Along the way he encounters obsessive individuals like an
unhinged Scottish army deserter, an Eddie Cochran-obsessed garage
attendant and a young German woman trying to track down her daughter.
More than likely the film is working at allegorical and symbolic levels I couldn't comprehend, although I did recognise the bleakness of the environment depicted here, having lived through the period as a young adult in Glasgow. I wasn't surprised to see Wim Wenders' name on the production credits, so terribly slow is the I hesitate to call it action, the longueurs broken most frequently by music from the contemporary post-industrial music scene, including tracks by Kraftwerk, Bowie and Fripp amongst others. In fact the music is so dominant at times, you might think the film is the visual accompaniment to its own soundtrack, rather than the other way round.
It's all very stilted and boring however. Some humour might have helped a bit or even some sort of dramatic climax, but I gave up on that hope quite early. As a snapshot of this country suffering economic hardship in a bleak post-industrial wasteland (no change there, then), I just about got Beames aimless and listless drifting as a metaphor for the frustrated youth of the time, distrusting authority, travelling without moving as the saying goes.
Eventually he literally moves to the edge as he ends up on the edge of a precipice, in actuality a disused quarry but by then I had tired of the film's general inaction, dull characterisations, flat dialogue and obscure locations. The camera lingers on and on long after a scene has ended, and what I presume are supposed to be meaningful silences are in the end just awkward pauses.
The Britain of the early Thatcher government was like this visually, grey, cold bleak and pretty hopeless. I'm not quite sure however what I was meant to derive from the main character's "journey", even if in truth he seemed to be on a road to nowhere. I could see cultural cross-references to the music of the day (The Specials "Ghost Town" from a year later would have fitted the soundtrack very well) and also the photography of Anton Corbijn (best known for his work with U2 and Depeche Mode), but as a bona-fide movie though, I didn't get its vaguely film-noir meets urban decay aspiration and might have wished I'd put on a few Bowie and Kraftwerk albums to pass the time instead.
came across this database entry by accident. saw the movie 25 years ago and still can find its traces in my memory - amongst these the strongest when Robert and a hitchhiker drive along a forest of power line pylons and find them awful. Robert says something like "years from now when only a few of them are left we might say they're beautiful" (sorry, a 25 year old memory is not the best base for correct quoting) Christopher Petits influences of the early Wim Wenders road movies can be traced down best in " I'm Laufe der Zeit (Kings of the Road) " from 1976 - its in b/ w as well. But to me there is as well a link to Jarmush's " Stranger than Paradise " from 1984 (more acting and dialogs but the same slow glide thru scenic black& white landscapes)
I was born the year after this film released, and have lived pretty
much ever since in Bristol, where a large part of it is set. It's very
strange to watch a film that you really feel you can identify with
(unless you're born in LA). The movie has the feel of my childhood,
things hadn't changed much by the time my memories begin, Thatcher's
socially divisive reign lasting from 1979 to 1990 coming straight after
the economic disaster of the rest of the 70s which had lead to the
humiliation to the national pride of Britain borrowing money from the
International Monetary Fund.
People were angry back then, they bit given half the chance, strangers in the street or in the park, or the pub, would bite. Some of it hasn't changed at all, young men joining the army because it's less humiliating than working in a factory or going to jail, then they come back from dubious wars unable to reintegrate into society, like the hitch hiking soldier in the movie. The threat of Irish Republican terrorism stayed until I was an adult. My guess is that there was actually an IRA bomb exploded in Bristol during the filming of this movie (17 December 1978); it was the second time the IRA had targeted Christmas shoppers in Bristol. Not anyone I knew, despite all the murders, really had any understanding as to what it was all about, no doubt it had to do with more young men who found doling out violence more attractive than low status lives.
The film is great at hinting at the political storm about to come, and really gets kudos for its clairvoyance. It was very confusing to me growing up as to why only one party (the Tories), were subject to big sleaze exposes in the newspapers. After all, aren't all politicians corrupt and vice-ridden? The radio news story early in this film refers to a group of prostitutes threatening to reveal the names of their clients from the realms of politics and the clergy, as there was a debate going on about whether to relax laws regarding soliciting for sex, and the hypocrisy of some of the participants angered them. The point was that the Tories would publicly speak out in favour of family values all the time, and then go and have a drugs binge with their favourite rent boys. Other politicians did this too, but it didn't make them hypocrites, so the press didn't hound them.
It really was an age of hypocrisy, of adults who had strange bloodthirsty and austere ideas who often didn't practice what they preached. The ugliness of this austerity is shown by the middle aged Anglo-German lady who rants about how the young have no respect, and are selfish because they live without fear, ignoring the feelings of the young woman looking for her child, something that a fellow mother should have found easy to connect to. In this respect there has been some progress, we're more likely to be able to put ourselves in the other person's shoes, and I don't see people walking around angry all the time any more. Hypocrisy is a word I haven't had to use for some time.
At the time the film was made we hadn't quite had such a thorough Americanisation. Robert is refused entry into a club because of his leather jacket, nowadays a pound is a pound, whoever's mitt it's in, and only people who are clearly going to cause trouble (already drunk) are refused entry. A lady I used to work was still upset about going on honeymoon with her man and being refused a room at a hotel because they were wearing leather jackets, about the time this film was made.
Radio on is a disturbing hodge podge of huge social problems, but there are moments of clear beauty, particularly a shot of a lady in a laundrette, whilst a piece of transcendent Kraftwerk plays. The idea of a road movie in the UK is a slightly unusual one given that it doesn't take very long to get from any one place here to the other, so the plot is a little contrived to that end. A very minor complaint in what is an absolute triumph of a movie.
Filmed in black and white with some great imagery; I love how this film
looks with its art-house styling. There is a pretty good soundtrack
with songs from the likes of David Bowie, Ian Dury, Kraftwerk and Devo
amongst others. All the performances were good but all delivered in a
very 'matter of fact' manner. David Beames took centre stage as Robert
with Lisa Kreuzer playing Ingrid. Sandy Ratcliff was Kathy and Andrew
Byatt the Deserter but (for me) the star turn was a brief cameo from
Sting as the Eddie Cochrane loving petrol pump attendant.
I must admit I was somewhat disappointed by this film. I expected a little more focus on the music for one thing and the fact that everyone in Bristol seemed to speak with a London accent didn't help! It has a very slow pace which I was prepared to accept as long as something happened. Sadly, apart from one bright sequence featuring Sting, not a lot seemed to. There are also sequences where the majority of the dialogue is in German, with no subtitles; very odd! I will give the filmmakers credit for some excellent imagery showing just how bleak an English winter can be (even in the South). Over all I'd say one for lovers of art-house films for them, Recommended for the general cinebuff maybe not.
My Score 6.4/10
IMDb Score: 6.3/10 (based on 296 votes at the time of going to press).
MetaScore: NO DATA: (Based on 0 critic reviews provided by Metacritic.com at the time of going to press).
Rotten Tomatoes 'Tomatometer' Score: NO DATA (based on 0 reviews counted at the time of going to press).
Rotten Tomatoes 'Audience' Score: 12/100 'Want to See' (based on 625 user ratings counted at the time of going to press).
You can find an expanded version of this review on my blog: Thoughts of a SteelMonster.
Former Time Out critic, Christopher Petit's directorial debut, Radio
On, shows its European credentials well. I say this for a couple of
reasons. For one, like the French New Wave participants, Petit began as
a film critic, and the sparing nature of this existential road movie,
was self- consciously attempting to move British cinema towards a
European style. Secondly, and far more telling, is the influence and
participation of the New German Cinema of the 1970's. Whilst
interviewing Wim Wenders, the subject of Petit's own screenplay arose,
and Wenders was impressed. Therefore, Wenders became associate
producer, and also lent the use of his cinematographer, Martin Schafer.
Beautifully shot in monochrome, the black and white imagery displays its artful intentions. We follow Robert (David Beames) as he drives from London to Bristol, after being informed that his brother has committed suicide. On his journey, he encounters several unhinged British citizens, including a Glaswegian squaddie with anger management issues, as well as meeting Sting at a petrol station, who seems to be obsessed with Eddie Cochran. Not much really happens in the film, but the most significant (at least the longest) "relationship" is with a German woman, Ingrid (Lisa Kreuzer - who was in Wenders' Alice in the Cities (1974 - Review #96)), who is searching for her missing daughter named Alice (a possible reference to the aforementioned German film.
This is a bleak representation of 1970's Britain. Not a hard task in itself (you could have pointed a camera anywhere in '70's Britain, and it would have been depressing). But what was fundamental to Petit's intentions, was actually a comment on the decline of British cinema. The main output of British cinema was within the prurient genre of the repressed "sex comedies" such as the on-going Carry On.. films, or the equally lamentable Confessions... series with Robin Askwith. When there was any serious attempt at British cinema, they were barely seen. Petit, felt that the Americanisation of our cinema's and the fact that our national cinema was laughable, was decreasing our cultural identity. Radio On is an attempt to move our cinema towards a more European, existential path, and with a more political consciousness.
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