Lost in the Movies: Pirate Radio

Pirate Radio

Ironies and contradictions abound with the U.S. release of The Boat That Rocked, er, Pirate Radio as it's been rechristened stateside (the name change itself is a kind of paradox: despite its obviousness and seeming desire to ride the coattails of pirate-mania, it's actually a much better title). First there's the fact that the movie, about the bold offshore DJs of mid-60s Britain who refused to accept the watered-down programming of the BBC (which only played a few hours of rock a week), has itself been watered-down. Not only by its American recutting - which excises, according to the Village Voice's Robert Wilonsky, some of the funniest bits - but also in its very conception. The screenplay loudly proclaims an allegiance to rebellion yet the film is essentially a sweet-natured farce which eschews drugs, politics, and even generational warfare (most of the DJs are rather long-in-the-tooth).

Despite a profusion of sexual activity, the film is never raw or edgy; the sexual politics and countercultural values feeling about as provocative as pre-time travel Austin Powers. Furthermore, the film doesn't really capture "the sixties" (circa 1966, Swingin' London vintage) the way that primary documents do: instead of the jolt of recognition one gets listening to the Stones, Who, and Yardbirds, or watching films like A Hard Day's Night and Blow-Up, we immediately recognize that we're watching a bunch of actors dress up in 40-year-old fashions, listening to rock tunes (not all of them of the period, for whatever that's worth), and then having a good time. Which, when you come right down to it, more or less redeems the film: Pirate Radio is fluff, but it's genuinely good-hearted, enjoyable fluff, and worth seeing if that's what you're in the mood for.

Plot takes a back seat to a string of incidents, some charming, some flat, some mildly amusing. The "conflicts" meant to move the story along mostly fizzle, and the screenplay lacks the structural sophistication and effective balancing of writer/director Richard Curtis' directorial debut Love Actually. Still, Kenneth Branagh has more fun than anyone else in the movie as the Hitler-moustached, delightfully glib politician Sir Alistair Dormandy, a stick-in-the-mud whose mission is to shut down the station. While the villainy is rote, Branagh clearly relishes the part and makes the transparent superficiality of Dormandy's diabolical squareness an element of camp - almost to the point where he's the most subversive presence in the film.

The rest of the cast also has a great time, which is good since Curtis' script has the tendency to build up situations and conflicts without delivering effective punchlines or resolutions. The laugh-out-loud moments come not from the incidents themselves, nor even the dialogue used to deliver them (which frequently strays into obvious territory), but from the panache of a cast which commits itself to characterization. Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the most familiar name to American audiences, is front and center in the U.S. promotions, but he's actually a secondary presence in the movie. He does gets some good scenes (including one in which he sadly observes that this is the best time of his life - a time which will soon be over, the recognition of which he invests with a resigned pathos). However, he's ultimately overshadowed by the rest of the cast, which includes the very funny Bill Nighy, the vaguely reptilian ladies' man Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Rhys Darby, and many others including the hilariously burnt-out Ralph Brown (who has a great, and surprisingly poignant, scene with Tom Sturridge, the film's teen protagonist, in which Brown's character faces an emotional challenge which he can't summon up the energy or interest to face head-on).

There are also cameos from Emma Thompson and January Jones (virtually every female in the film oozes sex appeal) as well as an enticing turn from Talulah Riley as Nighy's nymphette-neice who breaks in Sturridge, despite the fact - seemingly overlooked by everyone in the movie - that she's possibly his cousin. Sexual hijinks and drinking games abound as the characters fill the screen-time with scenes that have the feel of worked-over improvisations. Above all, everyone has a lot of fun, until Branagh finally succeeds in shutting down the station - at which point, they become true radio pirates and continue to have fun, while the audience grows restless. Indeed, one final irony of Pirate Radio is that anything was cut from the film at all; the well-over-2 hour runtime already feels too long for the slight material. The faux-Titanic conclusion lacks suspense and the laughs are somewhat overshadowed by the pyrotechnics, but thankfully, even here the film does not lose its lightness of touch. The movie ends with the biggest flotilla since Dunkirk (and one far sexier, methinks) followed by a montage of album covers meant to prove that rock never died (if so, some of the LPs are poorly chosen...).

Pirate Radio arrives at the end of a decade which has repeatedly attempted to capture the spirit of the 60s and 70s, particularly the super-conscious, fun-loving Swingin' era circa '65/'66, with varying degrees of success (the charm often seems shopworn and contrived). Meanwhile, Radio also echoes other 00s comedies like Life Aquatic and Almost Famous in everything from set pieces to plot points. Yet in the end, the movie remains a charming good time, unburdened by its very influences or half-hearted attempts to evoke an era. (By the way, did they really play "Never Have I Ever" in 1966?) It was apparently swamped at the box office by 2012, and was steamrolled this past weekend by the angsty werewolves and vampires of New Moon, but if you're in the mood for mindless entertainment, entertainment with a warm regard for its own characters and an inability to take itself too seriously, you could certainly do worse than to tune in to Pirate Radio.

This review was originally published at the Boston Examiner and linked on The Sun's Not Yellow.


Ed Howard said...

Wow, sounds like you watched a lot of great movies this weekend. I'm especially looking forward to your thoughts on the Godard, Bunuel, and Teshigahara films, all favorites of mine. The Godard in particular is one I consider among his best, though perhaps because it's more of an obscure choice, that seems to be a minority opinion.

Sam Juliano said...

I am particularly interested in the upcoming review of SHADOWS, which is one I rate with the "staggering masterpiece" label. But SIMON is another I can't wait for. Bravo to you for this stepped up activity, weekend viewing and prolific writing. The blogosphere is all the more richer with you hard at work.

I will be reading your PIRATE RADIO review soon and adding my two cents. I saw it last Monday and rather enjoyed it, especially the music.

Sam Juliano said...

Hey Ed, we left our comments a minute apart! Ha!

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, guys, the pressure is on...now I HAVE to address all these films, rather than just "some" ha ha... I will say that while I respected all of the films I saw (yes, even the much-maligned Body Double) I enjoyed some more than others. I'll leave the particulars for later there.

P.S. I'm also moving through Berlin Alexanderplatz, which is quite good, as per Allan's placement on his list (next up is Heimat though it will be a while).

MovieMan0283 said...

The above comments were in response to a coda which was originally included in this post, and was deleted when the piece (originally on the Examiner) was transferred here. Here's the coda:

By the way, I watched a lot of movies this past weekend, so theoretically there should be many reviews going up this week on The Sun's Not Yellow. However, prime time for readers is Monday - Wednesday, while the best time for me to write is the weekend. Such are the perils of blogging - guess I should write them ahead of time... Anyway, stay tuned, as Examiner pieces will be going up every day till Thanksgiving, and Sun's Not Yellow reviews reviews (including some or all of the following: Une Femme Mariee, Woman in the Dunes, Body Double, Simon of the Desert, Manhattan, Grand Illusion, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors...), should be up over the next week or two.

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