Radio On [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Fun City Editions
Review written by and copyright: Eric Cotenas (12th June 2024).
The Film

When not helping strangers get through the night with music, London radio DJ Robert (The Rainbow's David Beames) sleeps all day. He does not even notice when his girl (Life of Brian's Sue Jones-Davies) moves out of the apartment. Despite being quite numb when he receives a phone call from his mother about his brother's sudden suicide the day after he received a music cassette from him for his birthday, he suddenly takes to the road on a trip from London to Bristol to discover what happened… or so the set-up of Radio On would have action-craving viewers think, not unlike the later German new wave sci-fi film Decoder in which the very shape of music is used to subliminally control behavior. The feature film debut of filmmaker Christopher Petit, co-produced by The British Film Institute and Wim Wenders' Road Movies Filmproduktion is a road movie inspired by the works of the latter but even more meandering as it uses Robert's de rigueur encounters with the assortment of odd characters to depict the backdrop of late seventies England and the coming Thatcher years, juxtaposing the bleak urban and rural landscapes – captured in monochrome through the windscreen of Robert's car by Robby Müller's regular operator Martin Schäfer (Paris, Texas) – with a soundtrack featuring David Bowie's English/German version of "Heroes", tracks by Kraftwerk, Robert Fripp, Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Wreckless Eric, Lene Lovich, The Rumour, and Devo's cover of "Satisfaction" all supposedly emanating from diegetic sources like car radios and Jukeboxes but with a warm and thrilling presence even in single-channel mono.

Robert's encounters include roadside meetings like The Police's Sting (The Bride) as an Eddie Cochran fan living in a caravan behind a gas station, an army deserter played by Andrew Byatt who has fled his station in Northern Ireland, and a German woman played by Alice in the Cities' Lisa Kreuzer who has come to England in search of the father of her child who has taken the boy and gone into hiding with the approval of his aunt (Dirty Pretty Things' Sabina Michael) who nevertheless gives hospitality to both she and Robert. When he finally reaches his brother's flat and meets his brother's girlfriend (The Final Programme's Sandy Ratcliff) who did not even know he existed, she is unable to provide him with any answer as to why his brother killed himself – no personal insights, no conventional thriller conspiracy – but even that little he realizes is more than he every really knew about the other man despite their shared practice of sending each other music tapes with the "happy birthday, brother" note a final communication that can never be definitively analyzed beyond the surface. The lack of any further direction seems to just take the wind out of his sails, and the viewer questions just how learning of his brother's death was an incitement to adventure or just an impetus to drift along, sharing with the viewer the notion of the journey being more rewarding than the destination. Petit's subsequent mainstream directorial efforts included an adaptation of P.D. James' novel An Unsuitable Job for a Woman, which seems not so stilted and dull in the context of his moody debut, the German-set thrillers Flight to Berlin and Chinese Boxes, and a feature-length episode of Miss Marple but he has continued to work in short and experimental films, including a remix video essay of Radio On.


Released theatrically in the U.K. in 1979 by BFI and in the United States the following year by art house label Unifilms, Radio On first reached DVD stateside via Plexifilm using a PAL-converted master before BFI put it out on DVD in the U.K. the following year. Both BFI's Blu-ray and Fun City Editions' 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen Blu-ray – previously issued in 2021 when Fun City Editions was a partner label to Vinegar Syndrome – come from a 4K restoration of the original 35mm camera negative with the overall look of the film somewhere between new wave – French or German – and noir, boasting deep blacks and superior shadow detail along with a wonderful layer of grain that looks very much like what it is: Ilford 35mm black and white film stock so much more familiar to many in still imagery here in motion. While the soundtrack mix always seemed "over" the picture despite it ostensibly coming from audio sources within the film, here the visuals in high definition lend the settings a sense of character and life where once they were just backdrops, from the derelict-looking gas station with its old Esso signage discarded around the property to Sting's shabby caravan, the fine details in the decoration of Robert's brother's apartment during the long take exploration of it, the austere décor of the aunt's dining room, and the landscape in scenes where it is not merely zipping by through the windows. Possibly a new addition to the 4K restoration or just not noticeable before is the seeming bit of optical or digital blurring of possible nudity as the camera moves past the suicide's bathtub early on.


The original mono mix is presented here in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 with its mix of production dialogue recording and voice-over, the deployment of the musical soundtrack, and an effects track that seems to be or at least is intended to seem like it consists entirely of production audio. Optional English SDH subtitles transcribe the English dialogue and German dialogue without translating the latter (a deliberate choice by director Petit).


For the most part, the extras packages between the BFI and Fun City Editions releases differ substantially. Exclusive to the Fun City release is an audio commentary by film historian Kier-La Janisse who reveals that a chunk of the soundtrack choices are the result of Petit being able to license artists from the Stiff Records label, a British independent label that first signed a number of Akron, Ohio artists like Elvis Costello – who refused the use of his music in the film – and Devo, along with British artists here like Wreckless Eric and Ian Dury. La Janisse also reveals that the film was BFI's first German co-production and notes the ways in which it embodies a "German sensibility and aesthetic" as well as the ways in which his approach here with a passive protagonist carried over into Petit's subsequent thriller titles, as well as more conventional elements like the film's references to pulp thrillers and the visual theme of doubling.

Also exclusive to the U.S. release is "Before the Explosion of the Image Bank" (37:16) in which Petit discusses his early career as a film reviewer – a position he regarded as just a job rather than a calling – at a time when the U.K. was being exposed to films of the German new wave (he also reveals that he was not exposed to the French new wave until later). He also recalls meeting producer Roger Corman and director Martin Scorcese after giving a good review to Boxcar Bertha –Scorcese was surprised that Petit prefered that former film to Mean Streets – and admiring the former's economic model of production. He also discusses the meaning of the opening Kraftwerk quote seen written on the wall in the apartment of Robert's brother, dealing with Stiff Records and Kraftwerk to license the music, as well as his experiences with composers in his other films including Mark Knopfler (Local Hero) who was considered to score An Unsuitable Job for a Woman and he believes used ideas discussed for the film on another assignment. Of his Marple episode, he considers himself as just having been on the set while the mechanisms of the production took care of themselves.

Also new is "A Little Bit Kitsch, But Ice Cold: Retro-futurism in Focus" (51:34), an audio discussion with Vic Pratt and director Chris Petit in which also recalls meeting Corman and Stephanie Rothman (The Velvet Vampire) and initially considering developing a low-budget horror film with fellow reviewer David Pirie to pitch to Corman, the influence of new German cinema and Wenders, and posing as a music journalist in Germany in order to meet Kraftwerk and pitch the film to them to use their music. Petit also discusses meeting Wenders and pitching the idea for Radio On – actually, just the title at the time – and how he ended up directing it feeling he could do it with a good crew behind him, some of the shooting challenges including the opening Steadicam shot, Schäfer's meticulous but slow lighting, and his less than warm memories of Sting who had memorized the Cochran song which Petit let him sing planning to cut it.

Ported from the U.K. release is an interview with Chris Petit & Keith Griffiths (42:16) in which Petit covers some of the same anecdotes and ideas as elsewhere but also explicitly cites some of his other influences besides new German cinema and Wenders including Get Carter, Michelangelo Antonioni, Two Lane Blacktop, and Performance as well as describing the landscape as both "Ballardian" – as in J.G. – but also not "vintage" but simply a record of the time. Griffiths discusses working at the BFI under Peter Sainsbury who hired him because he thought he had experience as a line producer; as such, it was his job to communicate with the German side of the production. He also recalls that Rank agreed to process the black and white film as a means of proving that they could handle David Lynch's The Elephant Man which was also lensed in black and white.

Also ported over is the "Radio On (Remix)" (24:16) non-verbal video essay which uses digital effects to juxtapose the landscapes in the film and contemporary footage shot in Hi-8 with music and sound design by Bruce Gilbert.

Extras are rounded out by an image gallery (4:42) and the theatrical trailer (3:14).


As with the earlier standard edition, the disc is housed with a reversible cover fashioned to look like an audio cassette.


Inspired by New German Cinema, Chris Petit takes the "road movies" of Wim Wenders further with Radio On juxtaposing the bleakness of the seventies British physical and cultural landscape with an infectious soundtrack featuring the likes of David Bowie, Devo, and Kraftwerk.


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