Pirate Radio USA (Austin Film Festival ’06)

By  · Published on October 24th, 2006

Release Date: TBA

Normally I write movie reviews for this website, but I consider this piece to be more of a public service announcement. If you see Pirate Radio USA, you will want to go to Radio Shack, drop a hundred bucks and start broadcasting from your basement tonight. Consider this your only warning.

This documentary, directed and written by Jeff Pearson, follows DJ Him and DJ Her on their quest throughout the US to find and document pirate radio stations (before they’re shut down) and the struggles that they’ve endured due to legislation making it illegal to use the airways. Not surprisingly, Pearson aka DJ Him was a pirate riding the low-frequency high seas himself, living in Seattle during its pivotal transition from indie grunge to Starbuck’s caffeinated cultural takeover. This personal connection shines through in every frame.

With a surprisingly good production value, Pirate Radio has everything a documentary needs. It’s educational, but incredibly entertaining. It’s a serious subject, but Pearson and his cohorts don’t take themselves too seriously. Above all else, it’s a story about freedom, and the entities which believe it’s getting in the way of some pretty serious money-making. On top of that, while working with such a politically motivated subject, Pearson and his co-captain Mary aka DJ Her never lose the context needed to make an interesting film. Instead of bombarding one side of the aisle with quick one-liners and Bush-bashing, they understand that it’s a bigger issue than one party, and indeed, there are many people on both sides of the fence to blame.

Mixed in with the great interviews and personal stories are the tales of a protest march, the now-famous WTO protest and legislation that holds the future of pirate radio in the balance. Concerning the WTO, Pearson shows a side of the story that was largely ignored by the major media – it was a peaceful protest egged on toward violence by the police. In fact, the protest never really did turn violent except a small number of people looting. I say a small number because a few dozen out of several thousand seems fairly, well, small.

It’s smart, funny and has a painfully cool subject matter. But Pirate Radio is also frustrating because the people that the audience connects to the most are continually haunted by an overpowering government agency and the threat of having Feds knock down their door. It’s even more frustrating since the reasoning for keeping independent radio illegal is that it, at a herculean 4 volts, could interfere with major radio stations whose thousand-volt frequencies can be heard hundreds of miles away.

Everything about this documentary works. At the end of the screening, Jeff and Mary were gracious enough to host a number of questions ranging from the poignant (As a free speech advocate are you alright with hate speech groups using pirate radio?) to the asinine (Is Pump of the Volume your favorite movie?). In a quick series of emails, I asked them about their film and the jump from radio to movie making. DJ Him and DJ Her offered an insight into why the subject matter works, claiming that “it’s really really fun, and there are a lot of interesting people, music, and opinions that we were discovering and wanted to share.”

Pirate Radio USA definitely has something to say, and it’s impressive to see film makers so willing to be heard that they would risk the Federal Marshal’s battering ram at their doorstep. Normally, this is the point where I would tell you that if you get a chance to see it, you should. But as a public service announcement dealing with an uncommon movie, I would rather exhort you to create a chance for yourself to see it. Seek out this movie. You’ll be glad you did.

The Upside: A whirlwind tour of the great country that we love hosted by two tongue-in-cheek radio pirates delving into the secret world of the average citizen turned “criminal”. What could be better than pirates?

The Downside: This documentary could have been several hours longer and still would have been compelling. There really is no downside.

On the Side: This is Jeff Pearson’s first film and he acts as writer, director, cinematographer and producer.

Final Grade: A ++

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.