Film Review: Radio On, 1979

Radio On
DVD cover.

I heard about this film via a program on BBC R4, several years ago: a British black and white road movie, with an allegedly cool soundtrack, and involvement from Wim Wenders and associates. Sounded good to me.

Okay, some of Wenders’ own films have proven to be either too dull or too bleak (or both, like The Wrong Move), but Paris Texas is a masterpiece, and I remember really enjoying Kings Of The Road. Radio On sounded like a home-grown version of the latter, so I figured it was worth a punt. Hearing that Sting had a cameo role – and this was back in’79, the year of The Police’s second album (and first full-on classic), Regatta De Blanc – only added to the film’s allure.

Radio On
Sting plays a music-loving petrol station attendant.

Now in young-ish middle age, I find that whilst my own taste for art-house cinema is only a little diminished, very few other people I know seem to have any stomach for it. I don’t mind watching films on my own, and used to love doing so. But nowadays I prefer to watch in company. Consequently this DVD languished, unwatched, for a couple of years.

I finally persuaded my wife that we should watch it the other day: give art-house cinema a chance, I pleaded. The argument against essentially boiled down to the likelihood it’d be depressing, boring, or perhaps even both. And with a sad predictability, despite this being in some respects a highly unusual film, it was.

Radio On
Reaching for Kraftwerk, on cassette.

Regarding the oft-vaunted music: I love a lot of different music. You could say I have something of a ‘Jones’ for it, being a musician, music teacher and occasional music journalist myself. But I have to confess that, by and large, Petit’s taste in music, more than simply leaving me cold, grates. But his choices certainly fit the alienated and depressed ambience of the ‘electric world’ alluded to in a rather self-conscious and pretentious sounding note we see pinned to the wall at the films commencement.

Radio On
The note…

The opening shot kind of sets up the movie: slow and depressing. Slow moving downbeat films are often fine with me. But here it simply doesn’t work. A naked body is glanced in a bath as a camera moves round a dimly lit flat: my immediate thought, in this particular type of filmic context was, ‘uh-oh, suicide’. And sure enough… well, I won’t go into any ‘plot’ spoilers.

Radio On
The best thing about the film is how it captures a certain era.
Radio On
On The Road, UK style.
Radio On
Bleakly hypnotic.
Radio On
The romantic aesthetic of urban decay; Britain’s homegrown answer to Wenders/Jarmusch?
Radio On
In places superbly shot.
Radio On
Stills from the movie make it look fantastic.*

Leaving aside the cheery themes of suicide and alienation, there are some redeeming elements to the film, such as the photography of late ’70s Britain. Petit’s vision of Britain at this point in time is both bleakly depressing, but also at times quite beautiful (Wenders and even more so Jim Jarmusch are masters of urban decay as aesthetic pleasure).

Radio On
There’s some really great camera work.

There are also some enjoyable ‘character’ moments: Sting, and the snotty little streetwise kid by the hotdog stand, were both strangely endearing, the former wonderfully charismatic as a music-obsessed garage attendant, and the latter both sad and hilarious, a poignant reminder of the tragedy of youthful hipness. But the leaden taciturnity that predominates throughout most of this film is pretty oppressive.

One final thing: were the German language sections of the dialogue left un-subtitled to enhance the films sense of alienation? Or is it just an oversight type of omission? On my DVD there were only two subtitle options, hard of hearing and German. The German subtitles appear to be subtitles for German viewers (this was a joint British/German production), with captions for both the English and German language elements. The hard of hearing English subtitles simply put up text in the same language that’s being spoken, meaning a non-German speaker is still left guessing re the German language parts. There is also no chapter selection option in the menu, which is, in my experience, as unusual as it is unhelpful.

Radio On
Romance?

This could have been a great film, but it simply doesn’t have, for me at any rate, that certain something. In relation to mainstream cinema it certainly has the potential to interest, simply because it’s so different. But in the context of alternative film it’s quite disappointingly predictable, albeit that that’s meant more so in ‘vibe’ terms than plot-wise. But as other reviewers note, the plot, grim and thin as it is, seems subservient to mood. Also, as one gets older, it appears to me to be a trend that the charm of such mawkish art-house fare loses its shine.

Stranger Than Paradise
Stranger Than Paradise, 1984
Down By Law
Down By Law, 1986

Why can’t we have more black and white road movies that charm and uplift, like some of Jim Jarmusch’s early films? Stranger Than Paradise and Down By Law would be perfect examples, being oddball and art-house, but also beautiful, funny and uplifting. Certainly that’s how Wenders’ Kings Of The Road struck me when I saw it. Mind you, I was around 18 then, and as long ago as that was, I do remember a potential suicide bid being part of the story. Perhaps I should watch it again and see how it stands up now?

Radio On, however, was a major disappointment. I wanted to like it, but I didn’t.


* In this Radio On has something in Common with Abel Gance’s 1927 Napoléon; both yield up plentiful fantastically beautiful stills, but – for me at any rate – are nigh on unwatchable as films.

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