Christopher Petit’s Radio On (1979) has been aired before in Art & Music, but, says Peter Wix, it’s worth revisiting, not least because it is still on the road to nowhere, the place where many of us have always lived.
Over-simply categorised as a road movie, Radio On has also been facilely described as portraying urban decline under Margaret Thatcher (who was not in power until over a year after the film was made). It is not a film about Bristol, to where the increasingly lost and enigmatically played hero (David Beames) is driving, in, appropriately, a ‘Rover’, through a landscape that invariably looks more like Germany (even the film’s interiors seem somehow more European). Yes, the film’s Associate Producer was Wim Wenders, and the cinematographer Wenders’ man, Martin Schäfer, but this is no faux Wenders, faux German movie, but, rather, a treatise on universal subjects.
As a fulcrum piece, geographically and chronologically Radio On is a unique nexus between the spiritual cinema of post-war northern Europe (Bergman, Fassbinder, Wenders…) and the isolated but nonetheless rigorous evolution of such in the US, notably the work of Jim Jarmusch. The great contribution to this evolution in Petit’s little masterpiece is the integration of contemporary musical culture as part of the main protagonist’s psyche and the subconscious of his empathetic audience. Suddenly, we could dig music not as a chorus to our story but as the destination we seek, and music really holds this non-visceral, intellectual storytelling together.
The Radio On soundtrack features Kraftwerk and the German version of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ (‘Helden’); it presents music as the antidote of having no place to go. Music can be a comfortable home, the ‘Ohm Sweet Ohm’ of the featured Kraftwerk song, perhaps.
The Ilford black-and-white film stock, chosen daringly at the time for the visual info’, brings a note of nostalgia to all the elements of this language of music: a car radio, a strummed acoustic guitar, vinyl records and cassette tapes… all part of the film’s fetishistically photographed attrezzo. Thus, music not only gives one an identity but also provides a more palatable history than the reminders of destructiveness provided by the constant news we hear on the radio.
Music, then, is not only the answer to the film’s questions about displacement, but also to Radio On’s other main theme: how we communicate. We watch our sub-hero struggle to connect first with a distracted and violent squaddie hitchhiker caught between tours of Northern Ireland, and a young German mother searching for the daughter her ex has effectively abducted. While the use of words fails in these meetings, our traveller stumbles across a reluctant petrol-pump attendant (played by a very young Gordon Sumner, aka Sting) who prefers to sit and strum Eddie Cochrane songs and, with music as the language, connectivity is instant. Laughter and the body language of love will also bring a stronger, more nuanced interaction between the German girl and our traveller.
A third and essential theme of Radio On is survival, not personal survival but what elements of our aesthetic surroundings (and certainly what music) may last. Our traveller, some time before he contrives to get his Rover stuck on the rim of a dark satanic quarry, making a choice of what tape to play as the vehicle teeters, has already pondered whether pylons will survive (survive what? Him? His era?)…
The movie’s stunning black-and-white photography enforces the survival theme through its reminder of the past, and the film closes with an unashamedly nostalgic reference to bygone Britain: a sumptuous series of shots of a rural railway station, our hero, significantly, having chosen a train rather than a car in which to head into the distance.
Happily, this is a film that is surviving well, one that, its occasional poseur excesses and plot omissions notwithstanding, could put a broad smile on the face of a Swedish heroine.