I like to simplify Chris Petit’s debut down to the high concept pitch of “Get Carter as envisioned by an early 70’s Wim Wenders” but this of course would be selling this classic understated post punk road movie short.
The film follows Robert (David Beames), a graveyard shift factory DJ in London, whom after we have followed him listlessly attending to his daily routine for a while, is informed that his brother has died in mysterious circumstances in Bristol. Robert therefore decides to take a road trip west to deal with any matters that may need clearing up.
Rather than the embrace of the road as a site of freedom and mobility as seen in the typical American road movie (even the existentialist malaise ridden classic that is Monte Hellman’s Two-Lane Blacktop had a free spirit and the excitement of the never ending highway) Radio On is a distinctly British take on the genre. This is a place where the road will soon come to an end, the endless horizons replaced with enveloping concrete wastelands (echoes of J.G. Ballard are numerous and clearly intentional) and utilitarian motorways. This is On the Road as written by Orwell instead of Kerouac. Even when our protagonist reaches the countryside he faces an unwelcoming hibernal bleakness still stuck sometime in the mid 1950’s.
The car as well as being symbolic of the freedom of the open road can just as easily be turned inward into an examination of alienation – the car as an autonomous unit – a metallic lump of detachment. Who needs to communicate anymore when we have our own private space in which to hide even when travelling?
This struggle to communicate becomes the film’s central metaphor. The opening scenes present a semi-dystopian London crumbling under the weight of government mismanagement. Our protagonist attending to his job as a factory DJ, alone in his booth playing music to uninterested co-workers, non-descript in their identical white overalls. It’s in image of alienation as potent as anything seen in Antonioni’s work.
The theme continues throughout, our protagonist making diminutive attempts to connect with other equally displaced characters on his journey. An Army deserter; a German woman looking for her daughter; and even a young Sting as an obsessive Eddie Cochran fan living out of a caravan at a desolate petrol station.
The central narrative of the dead brother in the end proves to be somewhat of an enigmatic macguffin. The narrative appears to matter little if at all to Petit, who instead concentrates the film’s energies on a veneration of the image and the soundtrack.
The pre-Thatcherite Britain in post-industrial decline (filmed in startling high contrast by Wenders regular cinematographer of the time, Martin Schafer) is backed by a Teutonic futurist soundtrack of Kraftwerk and Berlin era Bowie. Even that ode to youthful rebellion that is “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” is presented in a disjointed and fractured way by virtue of its Devo cover version, draining away any hint of youthful abandonment.
Petit doesn’t appear to select the songs for their suitability within the image, if anything it seems to be the other way round. The images are an excuse for the songs, which are often presented in their full versions. For example, check out the audacity of him having Robert sit virtually motionless in a pub for three minutes just so we can hear all of Wreckless Eric’s punk by way of 50’s teen bop romancer that is “Whole Wide World” on the jukebox. Hell, even the film’s title is taken from a Modern Lovers lyric.
Overall then, a magnificent film, aesthetically exceptional and about as close to a real ‘road movie’ as British cinema can get. It will surely find favour with fans of Antonioni, Two-Lane Blacktop and early Wenders.
The Blu-Ray includes a audio conversion with BFI Video Publishing’s Vic Pratt and Chris Petit which serves as alternative audio commentary track but is only 54 minutes in length, Jason Wood of Manchester’s HOME who is a fanatic for the film supplies a 54 minute interview, Bruce Gilbert of Wire fame supplies a soundscape visual essay which deconstructs the soundtrack, some shorts from the BFI archive are included. The original trailer and a lengthy booklet on the film with various essays.