Pirate RadioWritten and directed by Richard CurtisStarring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Tom Sturridge and Nick FrostRated R*4.5*Goes well with: Love, Actually; American Graffiti; Rock 'n' Roll High School
You know that horrible feeling you get when you're driving around, flipping through stations on the radio, and you come across a cool old song that you haven't heard for a while? You're psyched because you've finally found something worth listening to, but then it ends, and the DJ comes on, and you realize that not only does a song you dig count as soft rock, but, also, you've been suckered into listening to a soft-rock station, and the music you once held dear has been co-opted by mega conglomerates interested in watering down rock 'n' roll so that it can be harmlessly pumped into dentist offices and supermarkets? Yeah, that's the feeling I got watching Pirate Radio.
Here's the deal: In the early to mid '60s, when rock was just exploding, the BBC played little or no music at all. This led to the rise of the pirate-radio ships, anchored just offshore in English waters, carrying vinyl, DJs and a transmitter. It's a terrific idea for a film, but it seems to be the only idea writer / director Richard Curtis had, because the story of Pirate Radio, which was released in the U.K. with the title The Boat that Rocked, is barely a story at all.
You see, even though Pirate Radio purports to be all about the exciting early days of rock, it's actually the exact opposite of how rock 'n' roll started. It's forced and clichéd, taking advantage of the music and the era without providing any real substance or emotion. The DJs are about as piratical as Talk Like a Pirate Day, and even Philip Seymour Hoffman, cast as an American Wolfman Jack in London, can't bring life to a lifeless script.
Things start when Carl (Tom Sturridge) is sent to live on Radio Rock, the most popular of the offshore broadcasters, after being expelled from high school. The boat is run by his godfather, Quentin (Bill Nighy), and populated by all kinds of kraaaaazy DJs, like The Count (Hoffman), The Doctor (Nick Frost) and the nerdy funny guy (Rhys Darby, aka Murray from Flight of the Conchords). Curtis goes to no short lengths to make sure we know just how kooky these guys are, through bad jokes, sexual repartee and an overall disrespect for authority. No, wait. Actually, there's no interaction with the authorities at all. That's strange, right? Especially since the authorities, in the form of a government minister (Kenneth Branagh) and his assistant Twatt (Jack Davenport), have decided to shut down pirate radio simply because they're uptight assholes.
Now, that would make a great movie. Pirate DJs sticking it to the man while cranking out ass-kicking early rock 'n' roll? But that's not what Pirate Radio is. There is no conflict between Radio Rock and The Man. Each group exists in a vacuum. No, the conflicts occur between the DJs—you know, one gets angry because another one has slept with the wrong woman. That's serious stuff, but in Pirate Radio, there's nothing that can't be sorted out by playing air guitar together to a Kinks song. The movie isn't smart enough to question authority, and the one serious subplot—Carl learning the identity of his father (don't worry, it's so telegraphed that you'd think they called Western-Union)—is just an excuse to play a Cat Stevens song.
Sure, there's plenty of rock 'n' roll in Pirate Radio, but Pirate Radio does not rock. It's a lightweight fantasy that assumes that none of the cool people in England owned a record player because they were all too busy listening to a single station. Look, it just doesn't make sense for a character to announce that he's willing to give up his life in the name of rock 'n' roll and then stick it to the man in an Animal House-like motivational moment when, really, he hasn't stuck it to anyone in the previous 80 minutes—except some unnamed DJ groupie who has no lines. Rock 'n' roll deserves better than that. And so do you.
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