Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Sturridge, Emma Thompson
(Focus Features; US theatrical: 13 Nov 2009 (General release); UK theatrical: 13 Nov 2009 (General release); 2009)
One of the most intriguing things about the early ‘60s cultural craze known as The British Invasion is how little impact the actual music had back home. While bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had their frothing fan-base, the UK’s government controlled radio rarely played their songs. That’s because the BBC dedicated less than two hours a week to rock and roll, believing that the listening audience deserved a more “sophisticated” fare. No, most English youth got their daily fix of The Hollies, The Kinks, and The Small Faces from pirate stations located on ships, off shore, in the international waters of the North Sea.
Now Richard Curtis, the writer/director behind such well-loved Brit-wit comedies as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and Love Actually, is fictionalizing the story of England’s broadcast revolution in Pirate Radio, an America-mandated retitling of his Spring 2009 international release The Boat that Rocked. Trimmed of some 20 minutes and yet still overflowing with character, plotting, and subtext the story centers on Carl (Tom Sturridge), a young boy who finds himself kicked out of school. “Sentenced” by his mother to a visit with his godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy), our hero finds himself on ‘Radio Rock’, a rundown cargo vessel broadcasting all the biggest hits 24 hours a day.
Among the crew are several madcap DJs, Felicity (Katherine Parkinson) a lesbian chef, a ‘thick’ intern, and a mysterious bloke named “Bob”. Chief among the throng are US ex-patriot The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), returning “king of the airwaves” Gavin (Rhys Ifans), lumbering ladykiller Dave (Nick Frost) and “nutty” New Zealander Angus (Rhys Darby). As their popularity soars, the British government grows desperate. They want the pirate stations shut down, and put Minister Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) in charge. He brings on an assistant named Twatt (Jack Davenport) and gives him a simple mandate - shut down Radio Rock in 12 months, or he’ll never work in the UK again…EVER!
Winning, witty, and wearing out its welcome toward the end, Pirate Radio is either a noble failure or the slightest of successes. Instead of being the kind of bracing, insightful docudrama that sheds light on a subject few outside the UK know about, what we wind up with is a bloated effort that tries to be everything to everyone—coming of age comedy, pop art period piece, political satire, crafty character study, ensemble romp, and/or hilarious history lesson. Toss in a regular stream of sensational ‘60s rock songs, a weird last act switch into action movie mode, and an abundance of keen individual moments, and you’ve got a movie that needed a narrower focus to truly succeed. What we have here works in phases, but just can’t come together as a cohesive experience.
Part of the problem is the introduction of the Carl character. Clearly meant as a device to bring the audience into the wacky world of Radio Rock, Curtis gives the wide-eyed innocent little more to do than sit back passively and pine away for some female companionship. It’s the typical dreary teen material, made no less weepy by actor Sturridge’s blank expression. He’s a void in the middle of some amazing talent. Indeed, while they only have small slots of time to make an impression, Hoffman, Frost, Darby, and Ifans are fascinating as disc jockey archetypes. Had the entire Carl support system been jettisoned in favor of a more “warts and all” look at these guys, Pirate Radio would have been so much better. Instead, we can instantly tell that Curtis means everything to be very courteous and polite, and if there is one thing rock and roll is not, it’s gentile.
And then there’s the government material, handled with all the subtlety of an episode of The Young Ones. Branagh brings a certain stifled, stiff upper silliness to his reading of the super-square Minister, but Pirates of the Caribbean‘s Davenport is rudderless. Having little purpose except to pursue Radio Rock’s status legally, he stands around in each scene and looks lost. Curtis’ attempts at undermining their philosophy are so heavy handed and arch that we can see the stilted, surreal Christmas party scene coming 30 minutes before it happens. Then, as Branagh and his ostrich-like wife wince at the crackling pop of traditional holiday favors, we can instantly tell that there is no affection for these buffoonish, button-down bureaucrats. Instead, Curtis means to make them look as lame as possible - and does so with a sledgehammer.
Since it’s not our legacy, since America has its own aural missteps that could readily make for cinematically incisive - of in this case, slick - entertainment (the demonization of early rock and roll, the blatant racism and payola of the ‘50s - ‘70s pop charts) we forgive most of Pirate Radio‘s excesses. Granted, by the third or fourth time Carl is seen sliding into a hormonal malaise, we’ve long since stopped caring, and the finale, which finds Radio Rock sinking Titanic style, is an odd juxtaposition with all that’s come before. Like any overlarge canvas, Curtis puts too much up on the screen, even in this supposedly truncated version. And yet oddly enough, we feel like we want more. We want more facts and famous faces. We would love to see how British citizens really reacted to the limited access to their favorite bands (the sunny vignettes with teens and various office workers dancing along to the tunes doesn’t cut it).
But more importantly, Pirate Radio needs more realism. Everything here is a fairytale reconfiguring of the truth. Sure, there is enough validity in what Curtis is doing to deliver a semi-rollicking good time, and his cast more than captures the spirit and the cunning of these counterculture revolutionaries. And yet the most intriguing aspects of the story - the who, what, when, where, why, and how - are left mostly to myth. This is not lethal to Pirate Radio‘s end result, but it’s definitely not something all the ‘Viva La Rock!’ pronouncements can fully compensate for. It’s still hard to believe that with all the amazing music coming out of the UK during that time period, most in the BBC thought the pop charts littered with junk. Richard Curtis’ retelling has its own issues with unnecessary excess. In both cases, the beliefs are more bewildering than fatal.