In the distance a train cruises over elevated tracks. A car drives down the A11 descending to ground level. To the left expressionless tower blocks, to the right a London that has so far survived the demolitions of the Olympic dream. This is the world of JG Ballard and it is here at Sugarhouse Studios that we find a screening of Chris Petit’s cult classic Radio On.
The film opens with the cold grandeur of David Bowie’s Heroes. We move though a house. As we come to the bathroom the singing switches from English to German and we discover a dead body no longer aware of the blaring radio.
Here is the catalyst for our lead character Robert B to embark upon a very British road trip across the concrete rainbow of London’s Westway and out into the abyss of motorways and time-warp B roads.
This is the 1970’s in inky black and white. The often stunning images show a world in limbo seen through the windscreen, a land of sparse landscapes dominated by the road.
Robert B is a blank faced biscuit factory DJ (what a job!) who uses music to accompany him on this solitary journey. From Stiff Record’s lo-fi wonders Ian Dury and Wreckless Eric to the pulsating futurism of Kraftwerk, the soundtrack propels this film and expresses the emotions that this man hides so deep.
A co-production with Wim Wenders company Road Movies Filmproduktion, Radio On also features German characters but is most notable in its European approach to the story with a similar contemplative beauty to Wenders own Alice in the Cities. There are other filmic touchstones in the dreamlike drive from Solaris and the epic jukeboxes of Chungking Express but Radio On stands alone.
As Petit explained in the illuminating post screening Q & A, his film was in part an ode to a Modernism ignored by British cinema. It now represents a one-off, a missed opportunity for homegrown film to embrace the director, to delve inside, and to look out on the lights of a sleeping city and see a sky full of stars.
Sugarhouse Studios are showing a series of films exploring British identity and mythology along with a smattering of American classics.