Christopher Petit's Radio On is a chilling portrait of Britain in the late 1970s. As with David Peace's more recent novelistic portrayals of Yorkshire in the grip of Rippermania, Petit's film suggests that violence and unsavory hidden networks underpin (but also undermine) the ennui and repetitive routines of an almost affectless daily life.
Unlike Peace, however, Petit has no great desire to prove the conspiratorial thesis that promises (as all conspiracies do) to give meaning to what is superficially odd or opaque. Rather, he prefers to surf the affectless surface itself, fascinated by the strange quirks and eddies that arise out of a life of constant (often mechanized) motion without particular end.
Hence, though the film's plot involves a man named Robert who takes a road-trip to Bristol to find out why his brother has committed suicide, with the implication that he may have been involved in some kind of hard-core pornography ring recently busted by the police, in the end the protagonist seems hesitant to discern any kind of ultimate truth. As he comments to a German woman whom he picks up on the way, the reason for his journey turns out to be strangely unimportant.
The quirks and eddies of the trek include a brief episode with an apparently psychotic army deserter whom Robert picks up as a hitch-hiker. He's been traumatized, it seems, by his tours of duty in Northern Ireland; but again Robert has little interest in probing much further, choosing instead to throw the man's stuff out of the car and drive on when the ex-soldier stops to take a piss. Instead, Robert is rather more amused by the gentler figure of a petrol station attendant (played by Sting) who is too distracted by his rock and roll fantasies and idolization of Eddy Cochran to bother with manning the till or taking money from customers.
Together, Robert and Sting's character sing a version of Cochran's posthumous hit "Three Steps to Heaven", which declares that "the formula for Heaven's very simple / Just follow the rules and you will see." There's no greater indication of the distance between the early 1960s and the tail end of the 1970s than the fact that such simplicity, or even such aspirations, are totally out of place. But the link between then and now is that music remains central.
For this is a film almost entirely devoid of dialogue; and even when characters do converse, they speak past rather than to each other. For instance, there are a couple of long sequences of untranslated German; in Radio On, language is part of our alienation, not a means to counteract it. Music, on the other hand, while it may reflect the repetitiveness and routine of our humdrum lives (Bowie's "Always Crashing in the Same Car"), perhaps also offers the possibility of connection and even heroic insistence on affect (Bowie again, with "Heroes/Helden," or Wreckless Eric's "Whole Wide World").
Indeed, before Robert hears about the suicide, he gets a package in the post in which his brother has sent him three Kraftwerk tapes. So it is this German band, whose constant theme is our uneasy relationship to technology and mass production, that come to dominate the film's soundtrack. The movie ends as Robert's car fails to start, and he is unable to crank the engine as the vehicle is poised on the edge of a disused quarry. So he puts one last track on the car tape player, Kraftwerk's ironic anthem "Ohm Sweet Ohm," and takes the train back to London.
As the quasi-manifesto seen in the dead brother's flat says, "We are the children of Fritz Lang and Werner von Braun. We are the link between the 20’s and the 80’s. All change in society passes through a sympathetic collaboration with tape recorders, synthesizers, and telephones. Our reality is an electronic reality." Ultimately, Britain in the seventies is not quite "home," and is by no means homely, but it may be that postindustrial (post)modernity gives rise to its own culture, and its own (electronic) reality in which we may find some uncertain facsimile of "ohm."
YouTube Link: the film's opening (almost entirely dialogue-free) ten minutes; the whole film can in fact be seen, in segments, on YouTube.