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  •  REVIEW: PIRATE RADIO

    Pirate Radio

    That's some good ship

    "Pirate Radio," despite not really being a kickass movie about rock and roll rebels, is an entertaining ensemble movie about some guys on a boat.

    By JOSHUA TANZER
    Offoffoff.com

    Nineteen Sixty-SIX, man! PEACE and LOVE! Rock and ROLL! Sticking it to the MAN!

      
    PIRATE RADIO
    Original title: The Boat that Rocked.
    Written and directed by: Richard Curtis.
    Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Katherine Parkinson, Tom Sturridge, Tom Brooke, Chris O'Dowd, Rhys Darby, Will Adamsdale, Tom Wisdom, Ralph Brown, Ike Hamilton, Kenneth Branagh, Jack Davenport, Emma Thompson, Talulah Riley, January Jones, Gemma Arterton, Sinead Matthews, Stephen Moore, Olegar Fedoro.
    Cinematography: Danny Cohen.
    Edited by: Emma E. Hickox.

    Related links: Official site
    Those are just some of the things that "Pirate Radio" is not about.

    Oh, sure, the opening credits and the closing credits and the trailer are all about The Power of Rock and Roll! The Brave Pirate Deejay! And it is true, the movie has, as advertised, guys playing vinyl records on a boat. But the middle 95 percent doesn't need to be set on a record-playing ship at all. It could equally well be in a hippie commune in the woods. Or a relatively hedonistic frat house.

    This is, plain and simple, a movie about guys. Or, as evilly plotting government minister Kenneth Branagh puts it, "the drug-takers, the law-breakers, and the bottom-bashing fornicators." You know, guys.

    Guys are all that's allowed on "Radio Rock," a battered old testosterone-powered ship broadcasting to England from the unregulated seas — otherwise, there would be sexual pecadilloes messing up the vibe. As it is, there are pretty much constantly women on board, creating sexual pecadilloes and messing up the vibe.

    Pirate Radio  
    Into this milieu sails young Carl (Tom Sturridge), a teenager just out of high school who is meant to be our protagonist on this trip but is in fact the least interesting person aboard. The stars of the show are The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Gavin (Rhys Ifans), rival bad-boy shock jocks with a love-hate relationship and an adoring public. The ship abounds with entertaining side characters as well, played by the likes of Bill Nighy, Nick Frost ("Shaun of the Dead"), and Rhys Darby ("Flight of the Conchords").

    So once you have your talent loaded onto a ship, what do you do with them? Well, in the case of "Pirate Radio" — written and directed by Richard Curtis of "Love Actually" and many other comedy writing gigs — you do what you know: comedy bits. Each bit gets five or ten self-contained minutes and could be shown individually on your iPhone without losing plot or context. It's sketch on a ketch.

    And if you can abandon the idea of the movie about the rock and roll rebels, you can have a pretty good time at "Pirate Radio." The movie is really a collection of amusing ensemble scenes almost entirely separate from the playing of music — the music, a predictable mix of Stones, Who, Hollies, and Procul Harem, is not so much a battle cry as a classic rock block and, to be cynical, a soundtrack CD.

      Pirate Radio
    (The only band that made me want to jump up and bang holes in the screen with my head was the Kinks — I kind of think that after all these years, the Kinks are the only rock band you really need.)

    The sketches make "Pirate Radio" a sort of Tom Robbins novel on film. There's the one about how young Carl finally lost his virginity, in two tries. There's the one about how the station's two stars settled their feud once and for all. There's the one about the overnight guy nobody knew existed. There's the one about the time January Jones came over from shore and married two of the deejays. There are bull sessions on the deck (including my favorite joke of the film, whose punchline is "Princess Margaret" — listen for it). It's good fun.

    The pirate radio boats really existed, prior to the expansion of pop music on the BBC in 1967 (I checked Wikipedia, and it turns out my favorite DJ worked on them before joining Radio One.) But this isn't really intended to be a true story — it's all fable. As such, the filmmakers felt no compulsion to make it too real, and I felt a little disappointed in how the government-vs.-pirates battle was handled.

    Kenneth Branagh plays a caricature of a minister whose obsession with closing down pirate radio is never explained and is probably way beyond anything the government of the time actually did. He orders his subordinate, Mr. Twatt (people in the theater were still twittering the 15th time his name was spoken), to find some elusive "loophole" that would shut the ship down. The "loophole" is like the Maltese Falcon, it comes up so often. Branagh's flimsy character is kind of a Scooby-Doo villain, more laughable than dangerous — a shortcoming that the filmmakers try to compensate for by making him up to look exactly like Hitler.

    Pirate Radio  
    The "evil cartoon Nazi minister" part of the story seems like it's happening in a different movie. They needed one more thing to make this work — contact. The boat and the ministry never talk, so the "threat" from the government never feels very imminent when we're with our boys at sea. Once again, they're basically guys isolated on a ship. It's a guy movie.

    If you abandon your preconceptions, that's a movie you can enjoy. The performances are spot-on. (Really, has Philip Seymour Hoffman ever made a bad movie? Wait, he wasn't in "Along Came Polly," was he?) The writing is good. The ship is atmospheric. Don't go expecting a rock and roll revolution — just a pretty fun movie that happens to have a rock and roll soundtrack.

    NOVEMBER 13, 2009
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK



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