Classic Film Club: 'Radio On'

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Each week Tom Huddleston watches a classic film he's never seen before. The rules are simple: each film must be considered a masterpiece and each must be completely new to him. This week: Chris Petit's 'Radio On' (1979)

Reviewing a film directed by someone who used to do your job (Petit was a Time Out film critic for eight years) is an intriguing experience. On the one hand, it proves that a former film journalist can successfully break out into the ‘real’ world of actual film production, unhampered by the legions of infuriated bad-review enemies he may have provoked along the way. On the other, it leaves one constantly searching onscreen for habitual journoisms, for a heightened critical self-awareness, for signs that this is the work of a director not just obsessed by film, but knowledgeable and possibly even cynical about it. ‘Radio On’ provides ample fuel for the fire.

It’s structured as a road movie, following solitary, self-absorbed radio DJ Robert (David Beames) from London to Bristol to answer questions relating to the suicide of his brother. Along the way he encounters a Scots squaddie recently returned from Northern Ireland, a rockabilly loving petrol station attendant (played with surprisingly warmth and subtlety by Sting), his brother’s coldly unaffected girlfriend and finally a young German mother hunting for her lost daughter, which quest drags Robert on to Weston Super Mare, and back to Bristol again.

Radio On’ is, in many ways, an astonishing film – as a pictorial depiction of Britain in Thatcherite decline it’s simply unparalleled, Martin Schafer’s stark, unlovely black-and-white photography painting a recognisable but unnerving portrait of a country on the edge of ruin. Factories, motorways, cafés and discotheques – the dull grey lifelessness of urban Britain bleeds into the damp, grotty, equally grey landscape of the rural belt. Petit’s atmospheres are engrossing, effortlessly drawing the audience into his oppressive mood of rainswept Northern European disaffection. The soundtrack is meticulously chosen, an achingly fashionable playlist for the late ‘70s modernist-nihilist hipster, from the womblike proto-electro of Kraftwerk and Fripp to the pulsating drones of Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ (here presented in its German-language version, ‘Helden’).

It’s this opening usage of Bowie in German that’s our first clue to what will become, gradually but with increasing conspicuousness, the film’s fatal flaw. As Dave’s last impassioned cry of ‘Wir sind die Helden!’ fades, we see our actual hero Robert sitting in his car, looking at an envelope full of Kraftwerk tapes. Reading the credits, we see that Wim Wenders is listed as Associate Producer, and that his regular cameraman, Schafer, shot the film. We also notice that Wenders’ regular muse – and later wife – Lisa Kreuzer is to play one of the film’s major characters. As the first third of the film unfolds in near silence, but loaded with brooding Euro-intensity, this feeling of Teutonic familiarity increases.

It’s all very well to be inspired by previous cinematic works, even to home in on the work of a single director. But Petit’s film is so slavishly devoted to the ’70s oeuvre of his mentor Wenders, particularly his road movie trilogy (‘Alice in the Cities’, ‘Wrong Move’ and ‘Kings of the Road’) that it becomes not just painfully obvious, but downright annoying. The film’s dark mood, which seemed so fitting in the early scenes, begins to feel merely portentous and tacky, so eager to veer away from anything that might evoke a positive emotional response that it drains any spark from the proceedings. By the time Kreuzer shows up looking for her daughter (whose name just happens to be – you guessed it – Alice), we’ve already begun to tire of Robert’s millennial torpor and moody new-man disinterest, and by extension, of the film itself.

Perhaps the problem with ‘Radio On’ is simply that it’s key themes and conjunctions – Wenders, Berlin and Kraftwerk, Thatcherism and cynicism, Ballard and the British motorway – have since become such raging clichés. Petit has gone on to carve a notable career as a filmmaker, so perhaps his unwillingness to forge an original path can be blamed on first-time nerves. But as the black clouds roll in, the characters pout and the film drowns in the sort of pre-apocalyptic angst that would make Ian Curtis blush, it’s hard not to feel frustration at an opportunity wasted.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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