Pirate Radio (aka The Boat That Rocked) (review)

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Full of Static

I’d have thought, what with the spirited information and entertainment free-for-all that the Internet is, that a movie made today about outlaw broadcasters in the 1960s would be more… I dunno: interesting? relevant? maybe just funny in a pointed way, either satirically so or merely in a downright earnest one?
Because blogs and YouTube have been the pirate radio of the 2000s, and they are on the verge of getting a massive governmental smackdown via the international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement currently being negotiated; anyone watching events over the last few years cannot have missed that something like this was in the offing. And yet there isn’t even a ghost of a hint that writer-director Richard Curtis (of Love Actually and Notting Hill fame) sees any connection to today in his tale of an illegal radio station and the attempts the British government made to get it off the air. And maybe even that would have been fine, had he demonstrated, in just some teeny tiny way, that Curtis had anything at all to say about anything at all in this mess of a misbegotten would-be comedy.

There were indeed offshore pirate radio ship broadcasting from off the coast of England in the 1960s, when the BBC held a monopoly on the official airwaves in that country and refused to play popular entertainment, like the rock ’n’ roll everyone loved. And Pirate Radio — titled The Boat That Rocked when it was released in the U.K. earlier this year — is based on one of those real stations, Radio Caroline, which was moored in the North Sea and beamed the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan to eager landlubber ears. The fictional Radio Rock and its ilk are “a sewer of dirty, irresponsible socialism and low morals,” according to government minister Sir Alistair Dormandy — Kenneth Branagh (Valkyrie, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) plays him like a comic version of his evil bureaucrat of Rabbit-Proof Fence — and it’s true that the boat, upon which a band of DJs live and work and apparently rarely actually leave, is a like a frathouse without girls (except for one lesbian who can cook, and she doesn’t count). But it’s the music Dormandy is worried about, and the sexually suggestive patter of the DJs, not how they’re living. So, with his sidekick paper-pushing “private assassin” Twatt — that “joke” gets old real fast, though Jack Davenport (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Libertine) is a good sport in the role — he sets out to shut them down.

Except that all happens as sporadic, almost random asides. The real story, such as it is, is about the guys on the boat, but there’s not much story there at all, just some episodic anecdotes better suited to a sitcom (over the course of more than a few weeks’ worth of installments) than a movie. Our eyes and ears on the boat are those of teenager Carl (Tom Sturridge: Being Julia, Vanity Fair), whose mother has sent him to visit her old friend, Quentin (Bill Nighy: Astro Boy, G-Force), the station’s manager, owner, and captain, in the hopes that… well, we never quite know much at all about Carl, where his young life had supposedly gone wrong, and how his mother hoped a sojourn aboard Radio Rock would fix that. He’s just there to be bemused and amused by the antics of the DJs, a motley assortment portrayed by likeable actors ill used here, including Nick Frost (Hot Fuzz, Penelope), Chris O’Dowd (How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, Vera Drake), Rhys Ifans (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Garfield: A Tail of Two Kitties), Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Invention of Lying, Doubt), and others. (Oh, and don’t be fooled by the TV ads that make it sound as if “one American DJ” saved the British from their rock drought: that ain’t this movie, not at all.)

The least of the film’s problems, in fact, are the hand-slappingly stupid misfires such as the sequence that portrays a would-be rape as a boyish prank (girls do get to visit the ship, once in a while), or another involving such casual cruelty among the DJs in a matter of the heart that is horrifically meanspirited, and pointlessly so. Though they do contribute to the overall unpleasantness of the movie’s tone, and its desperation to find any kind of humor in its heightened unreality. And though Curtis can’t seem to find any traction with any of what passes for his plot, that doesn’t stop him from letting it tread water — in the end, quite literally — for far too long.

Pirate Radio isn’t a movie: it’s cartoonish whisper of one, drifting in on the ether and drifiting off again, unheard and unmissed.

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Martin Rosen
Martin Rosen
Mon, Nov 09, 2009 1:33pm

The, so called, pirate stations were not illegal. They were broadcasting outside of British territorial waters and therefore not part of British Law.

The film, although loosely based on Radio Caroline is really fiction. There were no girls staying aboard the ship with the djs. Often they lived in very make-shift conditions.

Mon, Nov 09, 2009 11:03pm

I’m disappointed. It looked rather intriguing.

Martin Rosen
Martin Rosen
Tue, Nov 10, 2009 5:28am

What are you, Chris, finding confusing ? It is a good entertaining film, but not to be taken too seriously.

Sun, Nov 15, 2009 9:33pm

I have to say this is one of the rare occasions where I disagree with MaryAnn’s assessment but this is probably because, as someone who was a child in the 60s, I watched it through heavily rose tinted glasses. Having said that, my age group and older are probably the target audience for this movie.

Ever watched any of those silly British pop movies of the 60s? (that’s silly-dumb eg: the Beatles movies rather than sill-smart eg: anything written or acted in by the Goons). Pirate Radio is trying to ape that style as well as capture the innocent exuberance that pervaded those films. Did this work? Not all that well. As MaryAnn points out, the plot is disjointed and a lot of scenes appear contrived. Much of this is because at least half the original script died in the cutting room. Watch this on Blu-Ray and you’ll get a series of deleted sequences as long as the movie itself including 2 that are funnier than anything that survived the cut – a nighttime raid on a rival pirate radio ship and another where the American DJ admits to Carl why he came back to the ship.

To a modern audience this film will appear misogynistic but that would be to deny the origins of the women’s rights movement in the sexual liberation of the late 60s. Its hard to see Playboy magazine as a leading light of Women’s Lib but at a time when the prevailing attitude of society to single women wanting contraception was to see them as little more than whores as so aptly portrayed in “Mad Men”, Playboy was where my wife’s older sister got her sex education and caught onto the idea that sex might actually be fun for girls too.

Today it is hard to imagine the shockwave that went through society at this time generated by the twin evils of contraception and rock & roll. The Government Minister and his Department are played for laughs in this movie but real-life transcripts from the time are no less hysterical.

The women’s movement went on to demand equal pay, equal career opportunities and finally the right to both a family and a career but without that initial breaking of the nexus of fear between sex and pregnancy and the ensuing sexual revolution which, admittedly, young men endorsed for all the wrong reasons as portrayed in Pirate Radio, we would not have progressed so far.