Pirate Radio (Focus Features, R)

film_pirate-radio_sm.jpgWhile British bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were taking the world by storm, they were barely heard on their national radio service.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Fun is good. That’s the message behind Pirate Radio, the new comedy directed by Richard Curtis. The movie is fun and it’s about people having fun, so if you’re looking to pass the time with some scruffy characters and great music, then I recommend boarding the good ship Radio Rock for a two-hour tour.

To understand Pirate Radio, you must realize that commercial radio as we know it in the United States didn’t exist in Britain in 1966. Instead of thousands of stations competing for the public’s attention and the corresponding dollars of advertisers, the Brits had the BBC broadcasting only a few hours of contemporary popular music per week. And during those few hours, you were more likely to hear cover versions of pop tunes by a studio band rather than the original tracks, thanks to a "needletime agreement" which severely limited the BBC’s use of recordings for broadcasts. So while British bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were taking the world by storm, they were barely heard on their national radio service.

Stations such as Pirate Radio’s fictional Radio Rock emerged to meet the public’s demand for broadcasts of popular music and advertisers’ demand to reach this audience. Evading U.K. law by broadcasting from ships just outside British territorial waters, they provided millions of listeners with the latest in popular music spun by DJs with personality.

Radio Rock is loosely based on Radio Caroline and some of the characters have real-life models as well, but if you expect a factual history, you’ll only run aground on the shoals of disappointment. This is a film which does not take itself seriously and sends up everything from A Perfect Storm to Spartacus to Titanic as well as every teenage music flick you’ve ever seen. But it also catches the spirit of being young and feeling that popular music really is the soundtrack of your life.

The crew of Radio Rock includes The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), News John (Will Adamsdale), Angus (Rhys Darby), Big Dave (Nick Frost), Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke), Smooth Bob (Ralph Brown) and Gavin (Rhys Ifans). Bill Nighy holds it all together as Quentin, godfather to Young Carl (Tom Sturridge), whose mother (Emma Thompson) apparently thought some time at sea would straighten him out. "Spectacular mistake" Nighy intones dryly: Radio Rock is more like Animal House at sea than the H.M.S. Torrin (although Nighy does a good Noel Coward imitation).

It’s an all-male ship except for the lesbian cook, so on Saturdays the bird boat brings willing females whose arrival is presented as something akin to Jesus descending from the clouds. Sexism is ingrained in the men and the culture, but I found it less offensive in this film than in mainstream American romantic comedies such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall or The Proposal, whose misogyny seems to pass under most people’s radars. At least in Pirate Radio the women take a few prisoners themselves, the guys know they’re pigs and so do we, and the prevailing spirit in this floating frat house is "let’s have a mutual good time."

You can’t have a plot without conflict, and Pirate Radio provides three. There’s a tightly wound government minister (Kenneth Branagh) who is obsessed with shutting the pirates down; there’s a rivalry between The Count and Gavin; and finally, there’s man against the sea. The first goes on far too long and isn’t particularly funny, while the second allows the guys to show what idiots they can be and the third can only be taken satirically. Character development is nonexistent except for Young Carl; think of this film as one of the WW II movies where everyone has one defining characteristic and you’ll be fine.

Pirate Radio has a great soundtrack which makes good use of contemporary hits—"Dancing in the Street," "Wouldn’t It Be Nice," "My Generation" and about 50 more like that—and the credits sequences of classic ’60s album covers is a treat, as well. Costumes by Joanna Johnston have fun with the fashion absurdities of the time, and Danny Cohen’s cinematography is lively but frequently over-reaches; I can’t think when I’ve seen so many out-of-focus shots in a major release. Pirate Radio would be funnier if it were trimmed by at least 20 minutes, but it still provides good fun for an evening out. | Sarah Boslaugh

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