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Movie Review: Pirate Radio

By Philip Martin

This article was published November 13, 2009 at 4:32 a.m.

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Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), with the help of his secretary (Sinead Matthews) and his henchman (Jack Davenport), means to shut down the unauthorized rock ’n’ roll broadcast from the high seas in <em>Pirate Radio</em>.

— Pirate Radio is an amiable mess of a period piece about an interesting time in British pop music history when, in the mid-1960s, the BBC’s control of the airwaves was threatened by offshore broadcasters beaming the sounds of England’s newest hitmakers into British bedrooms and parlors.

A wonderful film - documentary or otherwise - could likely be made about the exploits of Radio Caroline and Wonderful Radio London, the two most popular stations based aboard ships floating just outside British territorial waters during the mid-1960s.

Pirate Radio is not that film, though it does provide a serviceable excuse for a killer soundtrack album. The main problem with the movie as drama is that it’s terribly over peopled, and none of the characters are developed to the point of distinction, much less given much chance to snag our empathy. Fine actors are wasted in silly roles and the camera keeps pulling away just as things begin to grow interesting. A plot synopsis would conceivably frame it as a kind of coming-of-age story.

After being expelled from school, 18-year-old Carl (Tom Sturridge) is sent (for reasons that defy all logic) by his mother to a pirate radio ship that’s being operated by his godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy). Once there he encounters the scurvy crew, led (sort of) by “The Count” (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an American DJ of (we’re told) legendary status. Once there he meets a lot of other rather generic freaks, including Nick Frost’s oversexed Dave and Rhys Darby’s pointless Angus.

Actually none of the characters are given a chance to do more than show up to perform their single trick (and I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what some of their tricks in fact are) then recede into the set dressing. For once Hoffman isn’t distinguished for his acting but rather simply because he’s an American in a swamp of British, Irish and presumably Scottish accents (Darby is a New Zealander, but we presume Angus is a Scot). We get the sense that a number of the stories here were rudely truncated in the editing room.

(I note that the film lost almost 20 minutes from the version - called The Boat That Rocked - that opened dismally in the United Kingdom last spring.)

What we’re left with isn’t much more than a weirdly anachronistic - look for a copy of Elvis Costello’s 1981 album Almost Blue that’s somehow time-traveled back to 1966 - celebration of the ebullient, rebel spirit of rock ’n’ roll.

Now if you’re the sort of person who thinks it ridiculous that a critic would pick up on an out-of-time album cover in a period comedy then you mightenjoy the anarchic temper of the piece, but it’s a fair bet that no one involved in the making of this motion picture is terribly happy with the way it turned out. Writer-director Richard Curtis exhibited a much firmer control of the proceedings in the reasonably coherent Love Actually.

Still, you can guess at what he was going for - the testosterone-thick atmosphere of a traditional pirate movie (the only woman permanently aboard the boat is conveniently lesbian) mixed with the thrilling sounds of The Kinks, The Who, et al. Yet, while that allows for some stirring montages, it’s meager recompense for two hours of your time. Pirate Radio is unwieldy and unfloatable, an unseaworthy craft.

MovieStyle, Pages 35 on 11/13/2009

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