Pirate Radio (2009) / Comedy
aka The Boat That Rocked
MPAA Rated: R for language, some sexual content and brief nudity
Running time: 116 min. (135 min. original version)
Cast: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Tom Sturridge, Kenneth Branagh, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Jack Davenport, Emma Thompson, January Jones, Ralph Brown, Chris O'Dowd, Tom Brooke, Rhys Darby, Will Adamsdale, Katherine Parkinson, Gemma Arterton
Director: Richard Curtis
Screenplay: Richard Curtis
In Britain in 1966, the rock-and-roll scene is flourishing, bringing with it values that to many conservative leaders are immoral and unfit for youthful consumption -- such major acts as The Who and the Rolling Stones proved difficult to find on the state-sponsored BBC. To counteract the burgeoning demand for the hip and hearty music, repurposed boats carrying powerful radio transmitters begin to emerge off the coast of Britain, in international waters, pumping out all of the latest rock tunes the young and impressionable public have been clamoring for day and night to millions of listeners.
Pirate Radio follows the exploits of the "Radio Rock" (patterned loosely on the real-life story of Radio Caroline), a fishing boat that had the biggest, most rabid following. On board the boat, it was dedication to sex, drugs and rock-&-roll all the way, as the DJs would play music on the air all day, while bedding as many groupies in between shifts. Meanwhile on the island, there is a movement, headed by government minister Sir Alistair Dormandy (Branagh, Warm Springs), to pull the proverbial plug out of the offshore radio stations and keep England safe from the ills of their music and influence. Most of the movie takes place after Carl (Sturridge, Like Minds), a shy and virginal young lad whose godfather Quentin (Nighy, Pirates 3) is the owner of Radio Rock, arrives on the boat and is introduced to the eccentric crew aboard, and he believes that one of the men on board is the father he never knew.
Writer-director Richard Curtis, who created light and popular feel-good ensemble comedies with Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually, rides the same formula for Pirate Radio. It's the kind of formula that either wins you over early and you ride the wave of good cheer, suspending disbelief for the sake of the entertainment value, or it doesn't catch you and you suffer through ham-handed contrivances and saccharine sentimentality, and you end up feeling that the people involved in the film were having so much fun together that they forgot they had a story to tell. It's a film that cuts both ways, with such gags as a character named Thick Kevin (Brooke), who always interjects the daftest comments in the middle of conversations, can either be seen as cheeky and hilarious, or half-hearted attempts to interject comedy without regard for the integrity of the characters or their stories. There's the early morning DJ (Brown, The Final Curtain) that no one even knows exists until months on the boat (you would think the DJ who relieves him would know, but no matter, it would ruin the joke), and there's the one-joke character, sexy Midnight Mark (Wisdom, 300) who remains sexy because he looks good and says nothing (an irony given that radio is where looks don't matter and the gift of gab reigns supreme).
Another involves the marital happiness of one of its characters, Simple Simon (O'Dowd, "the IT Crowd") whose relationship and nuptials are barely set up before we have feel-good scenes of partying and marriage, only to follow it up with seeing the young man's heart crushed in a wholly manufactured and not terribly funny gag that his bride (January Jones, We Are Marshall) only is using him to get closer to the object of her obsession, the flamboyantly popular DJ Gavin Cavanagh (Ifans, Garfield 2), is, like many scenes in what is a lengthy film for its type, not only a needless and long side distraction, but there's no payoff in either laughs or carrying forth the themes.
Curtis paints, Animal House style, the Radio Rock as this Shangri-la of rock and sex, where even the ugliest of inhabitants can get laid without effort, and they always have the right song at the right time to play. The sun beams on the boat for frolicking and frivolity, while the scenes of the mainland, just a few miles out, as dark, bitter and stuffy. The comedic actors do manage to portray their respective characters well enough, but nearly all of them are underwritten, relying on one character trait to define them in an instant -- the dumb one says dumb things, the fat one (Frost, Hot Fuzz) only wants sex, the lesbian only is there for lesbian jokes, the bureaucrat only wants death to pirate radio, etc.
Pirate Radio is neither historically accurate enough (it can't even stick to its year of 1966 to provide its tunes, some of which came out a little after ('Jumpin' Jack Flash' is from 1968, as is 'So Long, Marianne' by Leonard Cohen, to name but two) to provide interest in a bit of pop culture history, nor is it consistent enough to sustain its good cheer without collapsing from the weight of its own cutesy manipulations in its characters for laughs, It's not so much a story as it is a collection of sitcom moments meant to induce laughter and mirth, mixing it with all of the best rock tunes of its era. Whenever Curtis runs out of ideas on where to go, he introduces another new character seemingly out of nowhere. The film runs long at 116 minutes, and that's after 20 minutes had been trimmed out of its initial 135-minute release in the UK, where it was known as The Boat That Rocked.
Even if the story is a dog, at least the music is good. But unlike the rock albums featured so prominently on the soundtrack, Pirate Radio is a pop-star collection that aims more for the top of the charts than to true-blue fans, giving us catchy but forgettable filler than anything remotely inspired.
©2011 Vince Leo