Mark Reviews Movies

PIRATE RADIO

1 ˝ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Richard Curtis

Cast: Tom Sturridge, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Davenport, Tom Brooke, Rhys Darby, Nick Frost, Katherine Parkinson, Chris O'Dowd, Emma Thompson

MPAA Rating: R (for language, and some sexual content including brief nudity)

Running Time: 1:56

Release Date: 10/13/09


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Review by Mark Dujsik

I suppose Pirate Radio is meant to engender the spirit of rock 'n' roll in us. The closest the movie comes to a rebellious statement is in naming one of its British government officials "Twatt." Forgive me if I don't want to throw on the Who and start ranting against the Establishment after that bit of scathing criticism.

The soundtrack is probably the best thing about Pirate Radio (some song choices, though, are too cute for their own good), which is to the spirit of rock what water is to a shot of clear liquor. Some might think it's the real thing until they get a taste, and then they'll realize they've been sold a fraud.

It's bland, pretty humorless, and says nothing worth saying on the subject of fighting censorship and freedom of speech in a toothless fashion, because it's too busy letting a cast of interchangeably quirky characters be quirky because that's what we expect from a British comedy about characters with quirks, I guess.

It's so derivative that even the title doesn't matter. It comes to North America as Pirate Radio after playing, I learn from the IMDb, in the UK as The Boat That Rocked, in France as Good Morning England, and, possibly my favorite, on DVD in Greece as Radio... Waves. I'll let that one sink in for a moment before we move on.

You've returned for a breakdown of the plot: In 1966, British rock music was arguably at its peak, but the British government hardly played it over the radio... waves. In reality, this is because there was the BBC in the United Kingdom and nothing else, and when you have limited channels broadcasting, everything's probably going to get the short end of the stick at some point.

Writer/director Richard Curtis instead says it was essentially a government conspiracy from politicians who didn't like the "low morals" of the music. A bunch of boats appeared offshore of the island to broadcast (all kinds of music including) rock and roll (in an attempt to make money off of advertising time for already wealthy business men), and (conservative) members of the British government, like Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) in the movie, wanted to shut it down (alleging the use of wavelengths already reserved for others, a danger to shipping, the hijacking of a WWII defense fort during which someone was killed, and) because of low moral standing.

Let's allow Curtis to have his premise and go on from there. One of these nautical broadcasting booths is Radio Rock, where young Carl (a bland Tom Sturridge) goes after he's been expelled from school. He meets a bunch of quirky British blokes, and a woman (who's a lesbian—so quirky, that) and an American DJ named the Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman).

They all have quirky names that get to the heart of their quirks. There's Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke), who's, well, a bit thick, and the movie has no problem showing and telling us that over and over and over again. There's Big, Bad Dave (Nick Frost), who's a bigger guy and is bad because he tries to swap Carl into one of his sexual escapades (Why not get Carl his own girl?) and sleeps with a girl with whom Carl's smitten.

There are others, too, but they disappear and randomly appear so frequently that one character appears at breakfast and no one on screen knows who he is. It's played as a joke, but I don't think Curtis realizes it works better as a joke at the movie's expense for us, who frequently feel the same way, too.

Branagh is funny for a bit, rolling his Rs, rhyming, and alliterating, but his character becomes such a caricature that it's painful (Christmas dinner with his family especially so). The joke of his co-conspirator's name being "Twatt" (Jack Davenport) stops being funny the moment before Branagh says it for the first time.

Only Bill Nighy, as the station's financial backer, stands as a bright spot. He even manages to make funny the old joke about the good news being that the boat is sinking and everyone will die.

The rest of Pirate Radio is a jumbled mess. Curtis hints at the end that the actions of pirate stations like these led to the present-day state of half a million radio stations playing pop and rock music all day, and since we know that's hogswallop, they apparently did nothing.

He also says that rock 'n' roll hasn't been doing too badly in the past 40 years, which makes me wonder: Has Richard Curtis listened to a modern pop or rock station in the last decade?

Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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