Movies · Reviews

Review: Pirate Radio

By  · Published on November 13th, 2009

If you know me personally, or read anything I write, you know that I worship the 1960s and the music of the time. I grew up behind the seat belt of my dad’s Chevy Silverado, driving around town with the Oldies station blaring out songs about Brown Sugar tasting so good, My Guitar Gently weeping, and People Trying to put down my father’s generation. I fell in love with grinding guitars, amps that never worked quite right, and the homemade sound of just trying to be louder and more soulful than the guys who were just on stage.

As if it were really hard to impress me when a soundtrack includes some of the coolest Rock ’n’ Roll of the mid-60s, Pirate Radio (aka The Boat That Rocked) goes far beyond the Whiter Shade of Pale in order to build an irreverent story that captures the (romanticized) spirit of the time and become one of the funniest comedies of the year.

With Britain still refusing to play Rock on the airwaves, the explosion of American and British bands finds a home out at sea where free-spirited jockeys spread the peace, love, sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.

It’s difficult to talk about the film without just doing an overview of the characters because each and every one fits together like a puzzle piece coming together to form a very fuzzy image. There’s The Count (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the lone American who seems like an optimistic cowboy version of Hoffman’s character back in Almost Famous; Doctor Dave (Nick Frost), the big and beautiful sex-obsessed prankster; Quentin (Bill Nighy), the calmly insane captain and business man behind the whole endeavor; Simon (Chris O’Dowd), the unsure puppy dog looking for true love; Young Carl (Tom Sturridge), who’s sent to the ship in a foolish attempt to set him on the straight and narrow; Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke), who is not smart; Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), the sweet, lone woman who we’re constantly reminded is a lesbian; Midnight Mark (Tom Wisdom), the sexiest man who barely says anything even on the air; Bob (Ralph Brown), the Deadhead, bearded wastoid; and Gavin (Rhys Ifans) the savior of them all as the most famous DJ at the time. Not to mention a few side characters on the boat that deliver the news or run the equipment. And the slew of girls that are delivered by ferry bi-monthly.

That list long enough? Luckily, writer/director Richard Curtis tosses them all in a room together to create the sort of frenetic, Animal House-esque energy of people truly not giving a shit. They get their jobs done because they are in love with music, and their down time is spent working out differences large and small with childish solutions mixed with some genuine compassion. Of course, they broadcast it all as a sort of proto-reality show where a nation of devoted listeners jam out all night and live vicariously on a ship of fools – experiencing the sex and fun while riding the radio waves.

To put it simply: this film is a hell of a lot of fun.

And, in a year that hasn’t had a ton of great comedies (except a few), it’s a welcome change of pace that really hits the laugh lines hard, refusing to give into dramatics even while disaster is striking.

In fact, the buzzkill moments that could have been involve Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), the MP who is trying to outlaw the pirates throughout the entire film. He’s a polished, mustache-ringing Snidely Whiplash of government who is played for laughs and finds himself at the butt-end of the joke in almost every scene. Especially when he’s getting the upper hand. The fact that his scenes are some of the funniest in the movie despite the noted lack of chaos in them is a testament to Curtis creating a character that is just a few inches deeper than a cliche – a man who we can sympathize with mildly, but hate with the flippant hand wave of apathy. He’s not a villain so much as someone you really just want to piss off so we can have our music.

The film is perfectly balanced – one story about a man threatening to kill fun, and the story those scenes cut to where a group of rebels live it up on a boat. There’s also love, family issues, and a certain amount of coming-of-age (exactly the kinds that you’d expect from Richard Curtis, actually), and they all fill in the gaps that otherwise would have sunk the ship as a meaningless display of frivolity without an anchor. Luckily, Curtis has made a kind of movie that hasn’t been seen in a long time – a film that is happy to build serious and sweet moments, and equally happy to knock them right off the pedestal in a clever way. It’s called comedy, and it’s nice to have it back.

If there is a rough patch, it’s that some of the sequences don’t quite gel in context with one another. At least, not without really digging into the mindset of free love and truly living care free. It’s granted some leeway for solving hard problems with a wink and smile, but Curtis does get away with too much of it in one or two sections that almost seem unnecessary.

Despite the cast being overstuffed, everyone works together, sharing the spotlight and laugh lines in equal measure. There are no punchline hogs here, no stars attempting to out-scenery-chew, no dominant figures. Several characters are given more to work with, but ultimately, some of the funniest stuff come from characters I had difficulty remembering the names for. People with only 10 lines or so.

Over all, the film is undeniably hilarious. It’s dry, but not inaccessible, with a story that’s only heartfelt when it has to be, a cast that’s brilliant when they need to be, and a writer/director that guides the whole thing toward side-splitting success.

Not to mention ear-drum-splitting success.

The Upside: Great characters, great directing, great story, and a classic-style comedy. And that damned perfect soundtrack.

The Downside: A few moments that seem unnecessary, and a few dramatic solutions that don’t perfectly fly.

On the Side: Jack Davenport plays a man called Twatt in it, and apparently Dormandy’s secretary was originally meant to be called Ms. Clit.

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