Released forty years ago this year, Radio On‘s dark vision of Britain on the cusp of inevitable change speaks to our time in stark and revealing ways.
Radio On is a kind of existential road movie, adapting a European aesthetic (Wim Wenders is an associate producer)to a misty and nocturnal England. The languages of New German Cinema and La Nouvelle Vague bring new perspectives to England’s haunted spaces; its legacies of violence and exploitation; its inhabitant’s muted expressions of horror, complicity.
We follow an isolated protagonist, a late-night deejay working in a factory, as he struggles to connect with those around him. Upon hearing about the death of his brother (a possible suicide) he makes a necessary trip from London to Bristol, perhaps to uncover an unknown truth.
Along the way, he encounters fellow wanderers, a disparate gallery that includes: a soldier driven to violence and psychosis; a guitar player (performed by Sting) nostalgic for an idyllic past; and a German woman (played by Lisa Kreutzer) disconnected from her homeland, her family, and her language.
The loose narrative unfolds through a rich monochrome print of ghostly whites and glossy blacks. We see fractured urban backdrops juxtaposed with gloomy, ethereal landscapes. Petit’s camera pans the detritus of defunct nineteenth-century industry, abandoned petrol stations and empty hotels: the iconography of mass production and consumption. Modernity is a static television screen, a fuel-pump dial, a flickering marquee.
The soundtrack lends historical context. Vinyl and audio cassettes featuring David Bowie, Kraftwerk, Devo, Lene Lovich, The Rumour, Wreckless Eric. The music is part of the diegetic fabric of the film, heard by the protagonist on a jukebox or a radio.
The film opens with David Bowie’s ‘Heroes/Helden’ as a camera slowly pans across an austere apartment; Bowie’s vocals switch from English to German and the anthemic pop song becomes estranged from itself, familiar yet unfamiliar. Kraftwerk’s contributions also produce uncanny contradictions: nostalgic yet distant, tracks from their album Radio-Activity suggest human ghosts entombed within machines. Robert Fripp’s beautiful and otherworldly ‘Urban Landscape’ lends an eerie ambience.
Then there is the influence of American pop culture, the romantic mythology of rock and roll—nods to Gene Vincent, Bob and Eddie Cochran.
There are no easy answers here. Ambiguities bloom in their own time. But this timely snapshot of late ’70s Britain rehearses the cultural traumas of today. In our neoconservative era of precarious existence and community fracture, Radio On articulates a personal experience of grief and mourning that draws from a shared communal language.
While Petit’s film is a gesture that brings Europe and England together through music, cinematography, and thematics, it also emphasises a series of splits and divides: Bowie sings in German, Kraftwerk sing in English, but there remains a melancholic distance between the island and the continent.
Watch Radio On online at BFI Player.