Radio On (Christopher Petit, 1979)

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Radio On (Christopher Petit, 1979)

#1 Post by colinr0380 » Fri Mar 25, 2011 11:13 am

Radio On (1979)

UK – 1979 – Black and White – English with optional hard of hearing subtitles – 100 minutes – Original aspect ratio 1.85:1


Available on DVD for the first time in the UK, Chris Petit’s Radio On is one of the most striking feature debuts in British cinema – a haunting blend of edgy mystery story and existential road movie, crammed with eerie evocations of English landscape and weather.

Following a young London DJ (David Beames) on the road to Bristol to investigate the mysterious death of his brother, Radio On offers a unique, compelling and even mythic vision of a later 1970s England, stalled between failed hopes of cultural and social change and the imminent upheavals of Thatcherism.

Stunningly photographed in luminous monochrome by Martin Schäfer, and driven by a startling new wave soundtrack – and early screen performance by Sting – Radio On is ripe for rediscovery.

- Filmed interview with Chris Petit and producer Keith Griffiths.
- radio on (remix), Petit, 1998, 24 mins: a stunning digital video essay with radical disruption of the original soundtrack by Wire’s Bruce Gilbert.
- 28 page booklet with essays by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, John Patterson, Ian Penman, Chris Petit, Sukhdev Sandhu, Jason Wood and Rudy Wurlitzer.
Last edited by colinr0380 on Sun Apr 08, 2012 6:31 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Radio On (Christopher Petit; 1979)

#2 Post by colinr0380 » Fri Mar 25, 2011 11:25 am

I thought that I would create a page for this BFI DVD, which came out back in 2008. Radio On is a very difficult film in some respects, raising audience interest in slivers of narrative or an interesting soundtrack only to frustrate it, leaving the viewer as stranded as the nominal ‘hero’ whose journey we follow. It’s a film torn between the narrative and musical energy of American road trip films and the ‘journey is better than the arrival’ preoccupation of Wenders (whose company co-financed the film), with the added bleak run-down emptiness of 70s Britain that prevents either the American or European mode of road movies from predominating.

There is no shocking change in the landscape (there’s not enough room to drive that far) to get away from things and emulate the great journeys of American road films. Yet Radio On has a protagonist who is more attempting to remain aloof from (or even run away from) an encroaching society than being influenced by or taking part in it, so it isn’t really a European road movie either. It’s a British film filtered through a German sensibility tackling the American road movie genre.

(At the same time feels like the missing link between Wenders and Von Trier’s extra-geographically produced films. It particularly seems to prefigure certain elements of Von Trier’s ‘Europe Trilogy’ – the semi-relationships, beautifully decayed, water-logged landscapes, and making it up as you go along feel of the investigation in Element of Crime. The travelling to another area to have strange non-sequitur encounters of Epidemic. Even a shot from Radio On of the protagonist and the German woman he meets that is shot from the point of view of a car passing on the overpass next to the hotel window, which frames the two characters in its headlights in a gorgeously drawn out moment feels similar to similarly lingered on slow motion shots that crop up in both Element of Crime and Europa - often in those films from the perspectives of passing trains).

The music follows that pattern too, with Bowie’s Heroes switching from English to German language part way through the opening five minute camera prowl around the dead brother’s flat. Kraftwerk end the film but also features during the long driving sequences. Yet this is contrasted against American (or American-sounding) bands mostly available in public spaces, played over the radio, through tannoys or on jukeboxes. Again it feels like the unattainable aspiration set against the unemotionally, or ironically, bleak, with the protagonist stuck in the middle.

Fans of the music might as well be forewarned that it is often partially used or manipulated through the film. It doesn’t seem like a film celebrating its music. The essays in the booklet mention it being a soundtrack on a par with Trainspotting’s but Radio On is much less starry-eyed in the way it uses its soundtrack – it doesn’t act as an escape from the world here, more like a painful knife to the stomach showing up the bleakness even more clearly. I’d take issue to the comments Nowell-Smith makes in his essay about the protagonist “treating himself to Bowie and Kraftwerk over drivelly pop from Radio 1” – firstly there is no sign of the hero actually enjoying any of the music he listens to, whether it might be considered good or bad by the audience. Secondly, the Kraftwerk at least is a gift from his brother received just before he learns of his brother’s death, so playing that music on that particular journey has an unavoidably melancholic feel

This is where I think Morvern Callar is one of the few films to be influenced by Radio On, another aimless journey for an uncertain purpose set to an achingly hip soundtrack that we are not sure that the protagonist appreciates (or in the circumstances should be aesthetically appreciating).

It is a film with an extremely simple (Petit in his interview on the disc describes it as “autistic”) plot – a man finds out his brother has died and travels to Bristol to visit the flat. That’s it. The texture of the journey is what provides the interest here, though there are oblique references to the main narrative dotted throughout the film. For example the news reports on the radio early on describe a police crackdown on a pornography ring and then when the protagonist reaches his brother’s flat he at one point clicks through a number of slides containing hardcore imagery. Combined with the female flatmates reluctance to discuss anything about the matter, there is the suggestion that these aspects are connected in some way.

However, far more important is the way that the news reports on the radio provide the context not just for the pornography ring but also describe the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which itself relates to an encounter on the road with a Scottish soldier deserting from the army after a couple of tours in the province. The protagonist of the film abandons the soldier and drives off, seemingly mostly to escape having to think about what is happening in Northern Ireland ("I've never really understood what the problem was") as much as to run from a seemingly unstable passenger. But the news reports on the radio are the first harbringer of that inability to escape from the encroaching wider world – you hear about something that doesn’t affect you first, and then suddenly the effects of that news do start to have an impact. (The Ireland reports are also used as a contrast to the smaller references to the Baader-Meinhof group with the car passing a “Free Astrid Proll” piece of graffiti at one point. Perhaps like the road trip tug of war between the US and Europe, this is a tug of war between ‘idealistic’ and ‘too close for comfort’ views of terrorism, with the truth somewhere in between).

Then there’s the scene encountering Sting as a guitar strumming petrol station attendant. This is a strange scene in many ways, though it is also the most Ballardian, as the protagonist’s discussion with Sting involves singing along to Eddie Cochran’s Three Steps To Heaven and discussing his fatal car accident, which seems very similar to the hero-death worship of James Dean in Ballard’s Crash (Gene Vincent, a surviving passenger in the car crash, gets namechecked in Ian Dury’s Sweet Gene Vincent earlier in the film).

The one flaw of this film, which is otherwise rigorously tied to the main character’s point of view throughout, is Sting’s reprise of Three Steps To Heaven next to the petrol pumps once the protagonist has driven away. It came as no surprise to read in one of the booklet essays that this scene was included at the request of the producers for extra focus on Sting.

The final section of the film, when the protagonist reaches Bristol, can kind of be thought of as the female section of the film. We have seen the main character’s girlfriend acting a little alienated and then leaving the flat with bags packed at the start of the film before the journey begins, but once in Bristol the protagonist gets (obliquely) involved both with his brother’s ex-partner and a German woman trying to regain custody of her daughter. As with the news and the terrorism aspects, these relationships are extremely undeveloped – fleeting acquaintances picked up and then dropped without trace. There’s not even the sense of lost chances here – everyone is so caught up in themselves that a relationship is not the remotest possibility. Though the main character is so alienated that if someone were to develop a relationship more than beyond the superficial pleasantries that he would run a mile (as also seen in the contrast between his different reactions to the soldier in distress and the pleasantries with Sting)! It seems very true to life in that sense!

I suppose we could think of the car as signifying England, going nowhere in particular and always about to break down. Which makes the final scene in the quarry telling. Is the protagonist planning to commit a glorious vehicular suicide, which is thwarted when the car (i.e. England) stalls at the edge of the drop? Does the way that having even the possibility of an adolescent ‘screw you’ martyr-ish Easy Rider-esque ending removed from him by the utter unreliability of the car (i.e. England) jolt him back into abandoning it and hitching a ride on the last train going nowhere?

I suppose it makes sense. With Thelma and Louise Ridley Scott had to travel to America to actually drive a car off the edge of a cliff in a transcendent moment of celebratory suicide. In Radio On the more likely outcome is that life humdrumly meanders along and is not worth making a big production over since nothing matters, or lasts…


radio on remix (1998)

…which is something that gets explored in the remix version of the film. This is nominally a revisiting of the locations twenty years on but uses the contrast between the landscape then and now to meditate on ephemerality and seemingly the impossibility of returning to a more 'innocent' time (with its "child's pov" shots from the back windows of the car at the passing landscape). Petit has moved into different recording technologies in recent years (Super 8 and digital video) and this results in a psycho-geographical film (as in, its more about the thoughts of the filmmaker reacting to the changes he sees than any particular contrasts in the environment). This results in a more Antonioni-esque version of the film, though here the loss of recognisable landmarks seems to coincide with, or prefigure, a loss of bearings in society.

The destruction of the overpass next to the hotel in the late 90s (along with the removal of the gas pumps Sting leant against at the petrol station) are commemorated, and I was left thinking that just a few years later Petit could have added Weston-super-Mare pier to the list of artefacts used as locations in Radio On that have since been destroyed (albeit rebuilt again since).

As with films like The Falconer, this feels like a deliberately harsh and unaesthetic film, but I found that it really grew on me, especially the spectacular soundscape created through snatches of radio static and the use of the opening of Kraftwerk’s Radioactivity mashed together with the musical hook of Heroes to create a hypnotic effect.

A question I was left with was whether the statement “it should have been me” at the end of the film was meant to reflect on the state of mind of the protagonist in Radio On or a strange confession from Petit himself? Perhaps I’ll never know.


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Re: Radio On (Christopher Petit, 1979)

#3 Post by BWPIII » Fri Jan 06, 2017 9:22 pm

Spoilers, lots of spoilers…
Radio On 1979

Brilliant at what it does: express how it feels at that time and in a place called the UK. Many films express feelings about a time and place, but at the core of Radio On is an atmosphere that embodies a whole; a totality, that is the film. It fits how Susan K Langer defines art: a sort of symbolic logic where the symbols used do not have a definite meaning on their own, but instead gain an emotive power through the form in which they are put together.

I came to this film via a reference from a retired punk rock musician in the BBC three part series Punk Britannia. In the BBC documentary, people such as Ian Dury pioneered something called a Pub band. The pre-punk musicians were at a dead end and had no future. Their inspiration came from the past - the stripped down rock&roll of an Eddie Cochran or a Gene Vincent. They couldn’t afford to perform the progressive rock of Robert Fripp’s King Crimson, or the Glam of David Bowie, or the complex avant-garde experimentation of Kraftwerk or the slick stadium productions. The pub bands set the stage for Punk, who were also against the practices of the larger music industry.

The film opens with the sound of someone tuning in a radio and then David Bowie’s "Heroes", released two years prior to Radio On, plays. Not a hit, one critic said: “I think his time has been and gone, and this just sounds weary.” Of course today ‘Heroes’ is one of Bowie’s signature songs.
It is almost a 6 minute opening shot as we find the dead body and cut to above the Bristol Hippodrome then to the protagonist’s car, where he turns off the car radio playing ‘Heroes’. It seems more like an ironic ending, tying the two brothers together by radio activity. But the song is ironic - heroes is always shown in quotes. Eventually, we learn the protagonist is sort of feckless and certainly no hero. The change to German in the song does foreshadow the meeting of the two German gals, one is Lisa Kreuzer– Wim Wender’s wife at the time. (She was Alice's mother in Wenders’ road movie Alice in the Cities. Alice is the name of her daughter in Radio On.)

The protag opens a package from his brother - it is a birthday gift of 3 Kraftwerk recordings:
Radioactivity October 1975, Trans-Europe Express 1977, The Man-Machine 1978
He plays a portion of the Radioactivity tape and shuts it off, turns on the windshield wipers for a while, then starts the tape again, looks out the window at middle-aged women in a laundromat and leaves the vehicle – tape sill running. This is not what the protag is looking for. In the film, only songs from
Radioactivity are played. Radio activity is a pun. So why show us the other two recordings?
The three recordings represent Kraftwerk completely leaving behind avant-garde experimentation and moving to electronic pop. They have committed to a future in POP.

The protag goes to his DJ job and plays “something better:” Ian Dury’s Sweet Gene Vincent
(It gives the factory scene a dreamlike quality – the cinematography in this film is beautiful.)

Next song is Bowie’s 1977 release Always Crashing in the Same Car - is it diegetic? There is a cut out and we don’t hear it but when we cut back to the inside of the car we hear it so it is on the radio. He has just gotten a haircut and drives past the Free Astrid Proll graffiti. We travel past Brutalist architecture.
The next song is one he directly selects on a juke box: Wreckless Eric’s Whole Wide World. He is pensive or reflective. It gets him in trouble. This is an interesting scene as the AWOL soldier decides to join him in the car without any spoken words –as if the song has some significance. (Two decades after its release, the song was included in Mojo magazine's list of the best punk rock singles of all time.)

We pull into the GT station with Sting strumming Eddie Cochran’s Three Steps to Heaven. Again we are looking back to a simpler time for Rock&Roll and the protag joins in the chorus.

In terms of a dramatic arc, this next scene is the climax (followed by falling action and dénouement.)
Earlier he is refused entry into a club – a music venue. Here the protag enters a non-music venue - a pub – where the primary activity is a pool table. What we hear is a POP song, Lene Lovich’s 1978 Lucky Number, played on a juke box (you see the selection box on the wall by the door.) The significance of this scene is that POP is not just on the radio, but has permeated the local environment. A woman knocks him to the floor; the guys playing pool pay no attention – foreshadowing the rise of Thatcher? (Thatcher became the first female British prime minister May 1979.) This is a turning point for him.

In the car wash scene DEVO is playing Satisfaction on the radio.

In the quarry scene the protag leaves Kraftwerk’s Ohm Sweet Ohm on in the car and walks away. The bleak dark emptiness of the quarry is contrasted with the very uplifting music. The name of the film is Radio On. The Dury song, Wreckless Eric song and the scene with Sting suggest a backward movement – they are the direct involvement of the protag with the music. The rest are the result of radio activity.
When the protag walks away from Ohm Sweet Ohm playing across the quarry, perhaps what was said of David Bowie’s “Heroes” applies here: “….pop is the sic definitive statement of the potential triumph of the human spirit over adversity".

RADIO ON REMIX can be mentioned here. It is of the same vein as Radio On – atmospheric, but I think its heavy technological leaning is saying that you can’t go back - things have changed. Ultimately Punk failed. It ended at the last Sex Pistol’s concert in San Francisco on Jan. 14, 1978. John Lydon in his 1994 autobiography wrote that he “felt cheated, and I wasn’t going on with it any longer. It was a ridiculous farce. The whole thing was a joke at that point.”

POP won out.


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Re: Radio On (Christopher Petit, 1979)

#4 Post by colinr0380 » Fri May 15, 2020 5:06 am

BWPIII wrote:
Fri Jan 06, 2017 9:22 pm
In the quarry scene the protag leaves Kraftwerk’s Ohm Sweet Ohm on in the car and walks away. The bleak dark emptiness of the quarry is contrasted with the very uplifting music. The name of the film is Radio On. The Dury song, Wreckless Eric song and the scene with Sting suggest a backward movement – they are the direct involvement of the protag with the music. The rest are the result of radio activity.

When the protag walks away from Ohm Sweet Ohm playing across the quarry, perhaps what was said of David Bowie’s “Heroes” applies here: “….pop is the sic definitive statement of the potential triumph of the human spirit over adversity".
A late reply but that was a really great post BWPIII! I would only perhaps add that the way Ohm Sweet Ohm picks up speed near to the end coupled with that shot of the protagonist getting on a train and riding it out of the film could perhaps be the other non-audible allusion to Trans Europe Express that the film makes at the opposite end of the film from the brother's gift of all of the group's albums up to that point, just done in the most beautifully ironic terms as we never hear a track from that album play and with the train at the end being a local branch line one rather than that grandly opulent Orient Express-style locomotive as implied by Kraftwerk!

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