Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Sturridge, Emma Thompson
US theatrical: 13 Nov 2009 (General release)
UK theatrical: 13 Nov 2009 (General release)
There’s lots of great music in Pirate Radio. Indeed, most every scene appears designed to illustrate a popular circa-‘60s track, from a raucous celebration accompanied by Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing In the Street” to a tender love scene (closeups of young, earnest flesh) under Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s In Love With You” to a bride named Elenore, making her entrance along with the Turtles’ “Elenore.” Subtlety is not the point. Selling soundtrack CDs, that’s the point.
In itself, this isn’t a terrible goal. But Richard Curtis’ film (released as The Boat That Rocked in England seven months ago) is relentless in its pursuit. Yes, it provides a nominal plot in order to accommodate its ensemble cast (a really good cast, too, whose members spend too much time dancing and miming in montages of group shots). The deal is this: Radio Rock (inspired by the real-life Radio Caroline) is a boat afloat international waters, playing music 24 hours a day in direct resistance to the prohibition of broadcasts from within England. While the film’s U.S. trailers focus on the presence of the American called the Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he’s only one in an array of DJs overseen by station owner and boat captain Quentin (Bill Nighy).
But even as he seems a rather remarkable sort, with a history of rule-breaking and trouble-making only hinted at, Quentin is soon serving a rather more mundane function, inviting his young godson, Carl (Tom Sturridge) on board for some months of education. As soon as Carl says his mother (whom Quentin remembers as “a sexual legend)” has become frustrated with his own teenaged misbehaviors (smoking drugs and cigarettes), Quentin notes the irony, that she supposedly hopes “a little bracing sea air would straighten you out.”
Not to worry: no one will be straightened out here. It’s plain enough that Carl’s in place to serve as your guide to the DJs, a function made explicit in the very next moment, as Quentin takes him to meet them, naming each one by one and reducing each to a thumbnail description: Big Dave (Nick Frost) is a ladies’ man, naïve Simon (Chris O’Dowd), nerdy newsreader John (Will Adamsdale), token black Harold (Ike Hamilton), and oh yes, the lesbian Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), the only sort of woman allowed on board among these randy boys, mainly because she cooks.
As dull as this plot-by-list sounds, it is hardly helped by Carl’s pedestrian coming of age trajectory, framed by two ideas: he’s never known his father, who left as soon as his mum was pregnant, and he needs to get laid. This is so very regular that it’s not energized even when his mother makes a much ballyhooed Christmas-time visit to the boat, and turns out to be Emma Thompson in excellent sunglasses.
Carl spends most of his time watching his elders drinking and having sex, that is, when he’s not listening to each DJ speak into his microphone and introduce a tune. Mostly these moments are registered in tight closeups, lips and mic pocks filling the screen, to reinforce the idea that these men and the music they played were utterly seductive. In case that’s not clear enough, the film cuts again and again to rapt listeners, ponytailed girls in pink bedrooms, freckle-faced boys hiding their radios under their pillows, and occasional working crews—nurses, waiters, drivers—gathered round a radio to feel buoyed by a dose of rock and roll.
Repeatedly, the very phrase, “rock and roll,” is used in lieu of dialogue, simultaneously transcendent and obviously meaningful shorthand for an era, a politics, and an ethos. The opponent here is so egregiously overdrawn that he need not even speak, though he does, frequently. This is Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), a middling government minister who makes it his mission in life to shut down the boat, to which end he sets his assistant, Twatt (Jack Davenport)—and yes, the mere mouthing of his name constitutes a joke here, again and again and again. Each appearance by Dormandy is the same: he sputters and frowns, demands results, and Twatt insists that he’s doing his best. And yes, they will shut it down. Soon.
The threat Dormandy and Twatt perceive seems to be sex, period (which the film underscores with numerous jokes about knobs and sticks and testicles). This means Pirate Radio leaves out any mention of the usual historical and cultural background, say, sex as a potential means of mixing races and classes. The film’s insistence on the good times to had by listening to rock and roll evacuates the history of costs and efforts, of oppression and violence. Cut into cute montages and cleaned up, this version of rock and roll is monotonous and unmoored.