In the mid to late 70s when he was working on the script of what would become his first film, Chris Petit was Film Editor of Time Out magazine. Petit was very influenced by the New German Cinema that was taking hold in Europe, spearheaded by directors like Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Wim Wenders. During an interview with Wenders for the magazine, Petit decided to pitch the script idea to him, in the hope that through Wenders’ involvement, he could potentially secure funding for the project. Much to Petit’s amazement, Wenders liked the pitch and asked for a copy of the script, and so Radio On crackled into life.
Radio On is the story of Robert B, a DJ who works nights for the internal radio station of a large factory in London (actually based on United Biscuits Network), spinning discs to keep the workers company during their overnight shifts. Robert’s estranged brother, who lives in Bristol, has died in mysterious circumstances, and so Robert decides to drive from London to Bristol to investigate his brother’s death. What follows is a road trip through what Petit called the “Ballardian Landscape” of late 1970s England; a disappearing cityscape of Modernist high-rises, motorways, flyovers, pylons and spaghetti junctions. Petit’s monochromatic images; soundtracked by German Electro pioneers Kraftwerk and David Bowie amongst others, lovingly document the urban “non-places” of industrial estates, petrol stations, lay-bys and motorway services that Robert robotically glides through.
Petit mostly dispenses with character psychology and plot, filling the narrative spaces with a contemporary soundtrack in place of exposition. And it’s that fantastic soundtrack, coupled with the visuals, that gives the film the feel, at times, of an extended pop promo. Petit secured permission directly from Kraftwerk and Bowie to use specific songs and also did a deal with Stiff Records to use some of their stable; utilising songs by Ian Dury, Lene Lovitch, Wreckless Eric and others to great effect.
Radio On was an Anglo/German co-production, with the British Film Institute and Wenders’ production company, Road Movies, as production partners. Wenders’ cinematic influence is apparent too; earlier films of his like Alice in the Cities or The American Friend feature displaced characters finding refuge and solace on the road. This alliance lead to Petit utilising some of Wim Wenders’ crew members, including his regular cinematographer Martin Shafer; a crew who were adept at shooting quickly and on a tight budget. Wenders’ then wife, Lisa Kreuzer also stars, playing Ingrid, a German woman who is looking for her estranged husband and child in Bristol. It is this shift in the second half of the film that I find less satisfying; the inclusion of Ingrid’s scenario feels almost shoe-horned in, as if Petit felt he had to include some semblance of a story.
Speaking in 2008 in an interview for the BFI’s DVD release, Petit said that, unlike the way all cinema works firstly as a combination of images with sound; he intended Radio On to be the opposite – sound with images attached – and to my mind the film works best, when viewed and thought of in this way. Petit allows the soundtrack to make time for transitory moments, such as the scene where Robert stops for a drink, and puts Wreckless Eric’s Whole Wide World on the pub jukebox.
Even though news of Northern Ireland trickles out over various radio sets in the course of Robert’s journey, there doesn’t appear to be any overtly political message to the film; Robert even says at one point, “I never understood what the problems were”. Petit seems more interested in the almost existential disconnection of his characters; cut off from their environment, each other, themselves.
There are, however, some moments of connection in the film – Robert’s aforementioned interaction with Ingrid, and a nicely played interlude with an Eddie Cochrane-fixated petrol pump attendant (played by a soon to be famous Sting). Despite Robert’s soul(less?) searching, the film’s ending leaves him no more enlightened than when he began. He eventually drives himself into the dead-end of a deserted quarry, and to the strains of Kraftwerk’s Ohm Sweet Ohm, leaves his car and walks back to a nearby train station. Trading the solitary, isolated autonomy of his vehicle for the shared commonality of the train; perhaps he is finally ready to move on, to another brave new world.
Watch the trailer here:
Chris Petit continues to be intrigued by the possibilities of the open road in a new installation, made in collaboration with Ian Sinclair. See here for more: