Monday, May 9, 2011

Pirate Radio Movie Review: The Boat that Rocked

First published at American Madness on 18 November 2009.
Republished here a punctuation alteration.

*This review is based on the European release of this film which runs 2 hours and 15 minutes. The film was re-edited and shortened by about 20 minutes for the American release following criticism of its length in the UK.

Don’t be fooled by the way Pirate Radio has been advertised in the US. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character is not the focus of the film. To be sure, he is the lone American in a sea of British characters, which seems to be a theme writer-director Richard Curtis has developed (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love, Actually), but he is just one of many radio DJs living on and broadcasting from a ship in the North Sea to get around the government rules regarding rock music on the airwaves.

Typical of Richard Curtis, the film is populated with a large number of memorable characters. Although this time out it feels like he’s lost some control. It takes quite a while to grasp who is who. This stands in stark contrast to Love, Actually which probably had at least as many main speaking roles, but where their division into separate and distinct storylines made it easier to distinguish them. Here they are all thrown together in one lump sum.

Perhaps the biggest standout is Quentin played with that subtle hint of comic flair and swagger that has come to be the hallmark of Bill Nighy after his memorable turns in Still Crazy and the aforementioned Curtis film. His performance is sublime.

But there’s hardly room on the screen to give all these characters any real breathing room. Some disappear for long periods of time only to suddenly turn up again randomly. There’s a sense that so much footage was shot and edited down that some developments were lost in the shuffle. As a result, the events on the ship turn out to be episodic without advancing what little plot there really is.

The episodes are mostly seen through the eyes of Carl (Tom Sturridge), who has been sent aboard after being expelled from his boarding school. Along the way he will try to lose his virginity, bear witness to a stinging rivalry between Hoffman’s character (the top dog DJ on board) and an old legend (Rhys Ifans) brought back to boost ratings and advertising revenue. There will be an on board wedding and heartbreak to follow and perhaps young Carl may or may not get to know his father, whom he believes to have been one of many one night stands his mother (Emma Thompson, in a relatively brief appearance) engaged in as a young counter-culture revolutionary.

There is some plot thrown in to give the film a linear dimension. The government, not being particularly pleased with the existence of this radio station, put a cabinet minister (played with conniving relish by Kenneth Branagh) to work at finding a way to make the doings illegal. His progress is interspersed throughout the film to remind us that the fun and games on board will eventually have to end.

The film is peppered with a soundtrack that includes some of the greatest Brit Rock of the 60s. Although the DJs all take what they do seriously, Curtis makes a wise decision to keep his distance and focus instead on the irreverent high jinks that take place. It never takes itself too seriously in the way Almost Famous, another film that relies heavily on period rock music, does. Even while you may be wondering who Carl and Quentin are talking about when they refer to Angus or Harold, at least you’ll easily bounce along to the great music.

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