Treading the dawn with radio pirates
by Jason Blair
PIRATE RADIO: Written and directed by Richard Curtis. Cinematography, Danny Cohen. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Kenneth Branagh, Rhys Ifans and January Jones. Focus Features, 2009. R. 118 minutes.
Imagine a floating inquiry into the nature of music and freedom, a story about the outlaw DJs of the 1960s who rattled the British government from their vessels offshore. Imagine Britain’s best acting talent to carry it off, as well as one of America’s best actors, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Such a film, surely, would have a great deal to say, or at least a great deal of fun saying a little. It would be a film by, for and about renegade spirits; not a limp, ponderous Life Aquatic facsimile but a gutsy film, a rock ’n’ roll film. It would be impressively entitled The Boat That Rocked, at least until, after dismal earnings abroad, it would be re-cut and re-packaged as Pirate Radio — except in France, where it would be re-christened Good Morning England, as if the French required a sunnier version. Thus the film formerly entitled The Boat That Rocked would descend upon your local cineplex, only for you to discover the reason for the name change: Pirate Radio doesn’t rock. It barely even floats.
Pirate Radio is the story of Radio Rock, an unlicensed station broadcasting in 1966 from the belly of a rusty tanker in the North Sea. Anchored in international waters, the vessel is the brainchild of Quentin (Bill Nighy), the wealthy captain who, at the film’s outset, welcomes his godson Carl (Tom Sturridge) to the ship. The idea is for Carl, who’s just been expelled from school, to further his “education” amid the eccentric DJs inhabiting the ship, among them slippery Dave (Nick Frost, Shaun of the Dead), insecure Angus (Rhys Darby, Flight of the Conchords), weary Count (Seymour Hoffman) and sexy Gavin (Rhys Ifans, Notting Hill). With the Stones, the Kinks and the Who on heavy rotation, as well as boozing at all hours of the day, it’s an environment that resembles a floating bachelor party — although, come to think of it, when they throw an actual bachelor party, nothing seems any different. On the mainland, Minister Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) has Radio Rock in his sights; his henchman, the dapper Mr. Twatt (Jack Davenport, Pirates of the Caribbean), is appointed to legislate its obsolescence. Toss in young Carl’s search for his long-lost father, plus more montages than a high school reunion reel, and Pirate Radio is as uneven as the water beneath their boat.
Pirate Radio is the debut film by Richard Curtis, a screenwriter whose output is occasionally enjoyable (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral) and sometimes abysmal (Love, Actually). His treatment of character is occasional at best; Curtis seems more interested in a constant lightness of mood than anything awkward or contrary or painful. Pirate Radio is presented as a light romp, but it’s so light it’s inconsequential. The film is goofy without being funny, serious without being meaningful. It contains a string of love-at-first-sightings without even the decency of a good sex scene, although it may be the least belligerent film ever made about a subject — rock ’n’ roll — that is fundamentally belligerent. The film’s strongest area is the music, which I would describe as the best Wes Anderson soundtrack outside of a Wes Anderson film. Not even a late visit from Emma Thompson can fix this leaky vessel. Shot handheld, just to make you extra seasick, Pirate Radio has occasional moments of glee onboard, but for ruining a terrific concept so adroitly, it should immediately be put to sea.