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Radio On (1979)


Main image of Radio On (1979)
35mm, 102 min, black & white
DirectorChristopher Petit
Made byBFI Production Board
 Road Movies Filmproduktion Gmbh
ProducerKeith Griffiths
Associate ProducerWim Wenders
ScreenplayChris Petit
CinematographyMartin Schäfer
EditorAnthony Sloman

Cast: David Beames (Robert B.); Lisa Kreuzer (Ingrid); Sandy Ratcliff (occupant of Bristol flat); Andrew Byatt (soldier); Sue Jones-Davies (Robert's girl); Sting (guitarist at petrol station)

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Robert D, a DJ attempting to come to terms with his brother's death, embarks on an investigative and existential journey west.

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"We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner von Braun," reads the manifesto on the wall, shot in stark black and white by Martin Schäfer, as David Bowie sings 'Helden'. Co-produced by Wim Wenders and starring Lisa Kreuzer, Radio On wears its German influences so brazenly on its sleeve that it's almost a surprise to find its taciturn anti-hero Robert B heading in the opposite direction, towards Bristol. Wenders had to go to the US to make his own most famous road movie, Paris, Texas (W. Germany/France, 1984), but Chris Petit succeeded with Radio On in making a distinctive and culturally English road movie, a peculiar exception in a British cinema rarely given to following highways.

After the road, Radio On's real star is its soundtrack of late-70s oddities, from Wreckless Eric to Lene Lovich. The significance of contemporary popular music in defining a film can't be unfamiliar to anyone who went to the cinema in the 1990s, but unlike Trainspotting (d. Danny Boyle, 1996) or Pulp Fiction (US, 1994) the music in Radio On has an uneasy relationship with the diegesis. Songs work their way into the film's fabric, but only when the next cut ends sound as well as image are we reminded that the music was in the background all along, and someone was listening to it.

Like the music, everything in Radio On, from Baader-Meinhof graffiti to the branding on a lonely rural petrol station, carries the sense of having been put there deliberately. It's no accident either that Robert is a DJ by trade, but as a character he is a cipher: Petit concentrates instead on the English landscape, and Modernist architecture, viewed through a naturally cinematic car windscreen.

Rarely seen between its release in 1980 and recent reissue, Radio On has acquired the reputation of a film that diagnoses its moment: the bleakness and emotional autism of post-punk Britain before Thatcher. Seen again in the 21st century, its points of reference seem more eclectic. The robotic melodies of Kraftwerk, the manic pub funk of Ian Dury and the progressive electronica of Robert Fripp all belong to very different musical traditions. Correspondingly, Northern Ireland, the trivia of British rock history and the fallout of the 1960s sexual revolution are now considered part of quite separate historical narratives. For all Robert's lack of obvious emotional responses, Radio On remains his own intensely personal journey.

Danny Birchall

*This film is available on BFI DVD.

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Video Clips
1. A Scottish Soldier (6:16)
2. Platform 1 (1:07)
3. The Grosvenor Hotel (4:00)
Production stills
Griffiths, Keith (1947-)
Petit, Chris (1949-)
Sting (1951-)
The BFI Production Board: The Features
They Started Here