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DIRECTED BY: Christopher Petit
FEATURING: David Beames, Lisa Kreuzer
PLOT: A disc jockey drives across the UK when he learns about his brother’s death.
COMMENTS: Radio On is well aware that its soundtrack is its strongest (or, at least, its most marketable) component. The movie begins with the sound of a radio dial quickly migrating through static and brief news snippets to fasten onto singing “Heroes” (the rare extended version where the crooner sings the lyrics in both English and German). The main cast are quickly credited, and then we launch into the soundtrack credits: Bowie. Kraftwerk. King Crimson’s Robert Fripp. Ian Dury. A bunch of late punk/early new wave acts now forgotten. Devo. (Though not credited, a young Sting will also cameo, as a guitar-playing gas station pump jockey who sings Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps to Heaven.”) Cinematic staple “Heroes” continues to drone as the black and white camera pans through a cluttered apartment to eventually light upon a body in a bathtub.
Unfortunately, the zeitgeist tunes and superior camerawork (by Martin Schäfer, one of several connections to the German director found in Radio On) are the movie’s only real draws. Made just as Thatcherism was taking hold in the U.K., Radio On is as dour and torpid as the mindset of liberal intellectuals of the period. That body in the bathtub belongs to our DJ protagonist Robert’s dead brother, who, after 25 or so minutes of dilly-dallying, staring off into space, and getting a haircut in what seems like real time, sets him off on a journey to find out what happened. The camera focuses on the ugliest examples of modern British architecture it can find—factories, tenement skyscrapers, freeway on-ramps—so that when we finally see the flat and bleak English landscape outside his car window, it looks pastoral by comparison. Newscasts blather on about crime and obscenity raids, until our expressionless antihero turns on some Kraftwerk in boredom. It’s all very
esque, stylishly alienated and dispassionate. Once the journey gets afoot, Petit livens up the scenario (not a difficult task) with a few chance encounters: a Scottish army deserter, Sting, and a plot detour with a German woman (Wenders’ ex-wife Kreuzer) fruitlessly searching for the daughter her ex-husband has taken to England. Robert’s car deteriorates throughout the journey, until it ends up stalled out at a quarry by a beach. We never learn exactly what happened to the brother.
I’m sure Radio On accurately captures the mood of anomie among leftists in 1979 England. As a time capsule, it has some value beyond the soundtrack and cinematography. But the aggressively disenchanted pallor makes it a hard sell for people who weren’t there. Despite the Bowie tunes, most of the movie informed by long, ambiguous-but-sad silences.
Radio On was a surprise late 2021 release from Vinegar Syndrome (via partner label Fun City). The movie has a small but loyal British following, and among the surprising number of extras on the disc (including a Kier-La Janisse commentary track and multiple interviews with director Petit) is “Radio On (Remix),” a 24-minute experimental film composed of altered Radio On footage with a schizophrenic audio mix and lines of poetry appearing in subtitles. I’m personally much fonder of this abstract, dreamlike approach to the material, but it’s difficult to say how it would work as a standalone piece for someone with no knowledge of the feature.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: