Finally 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, existential synthesis of thriller and road movie, it reflects a fascination with not only all things automotive but also the mythology of freedom and the lingering ennui that underpins the finest films in the road movie genre.
Previously the film editor at Time Out, Petit claims to have seen nothing on the English screen that corresponded to a modern life that for him combined ‘drift and boredom, Alphaville, JG Ballard and Kraftwerk’. An admirer of Two-Lane Blacktop and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Petit began to wonder why a British film could not explore the enduring theme of migration whilst presenting contemporary England as a cinematic landscape. While he was similarly enthralled by the austere aesthetic of Bresson, Straub and Rossellini, it was the films of Wim Wenders that indicated that a way of actually making films might be possible. Possibility became reality when the German responded to Petit’s overtures and became his Executive Producer.
Minimalist in plot, Radio On follows a young man (a suitably distant David Beames) as he travels by car to Bristol to investigate the death in mysterious circumstances of his brother. As he drives he encounters figures as rootless as himself: a soldier deserting from duty in Northern Ireland, a German woman looking for her lost child (Lisa Kreuzer, on loan from Wenders), and a rural rock ‘n’ roll loving garage mechanic with dreams of stardom (an early Sting cameo). Stunningly photographed in luminous monochrome by another Wenders regular, Martin SchÃ¤fer, the film offers a mythic and quietly compelling vision of a late and very gloomy 1970s England stricken by economic decline and stalled between failed hopes of cultural and social change and the imminent upheavals of Thatcherism.
In his preface to my road movies book Petit, who has carved out a simultaneous career as a novelist, eloquently writes of his love of driving and music, citing the portable radio cassette as one of the ‘greatest inventions of the twentieth century and the in-car stereo as the means by which the dreary reality of Britain could be transcended’. Given this appreciation of the relationship between music and motion it should come as no surprise that Radio On delivers one of the great film soundtracks, utilising the new wave sounds of David Bowie, Robert Fripp, Kraftwerk and Devo. But despite these pop accoutrements and despite suggesting an audacious new direction for British cinema, this undeniably alien and alienating work was met with suspicion and incomprehension on release.
Later celebrated by the writer Iain Sinclair in his book Lights Out for the Territory, Radio On‘s reputation has rightly remained in the ascendancy and it remains very much a personal favourite. Theatrically re-released to an audible fanfare by the British Film Institute in 2004, the film’s availability on DVD (again through the BFI) will give further pause for re-discovery. It’s a handsome package too, incorporating 1988′s 24-minute Radio On (Remix) project (a stunning digital video essay with radical disruption of the original soundtrack by Wire’s Bruce Gilbert), extended interviews with both Petit and maverick producer Keith Griffiths and essays by Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, John Patterson, Ian Penman, Chris Petit, Sukhdev Sandhu and road movie guru Rudy Wurlitzer.
Jason Wood is the author of 100 Road Movies (BFI Publishing).