John Anderson writes on film for The New York Times, Variety, Newsday, Screen International among other publications.



Review by John Anderson


      A labor of misguided love, “Pirate Radio,” won’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with work of Richard Curtis -- the scripts for “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill,” “Love Actually” (which he also directed) and the two “Bridget Jones” movies, about which the less said the better. Having begun his post-university career in England writing sketch comedy for the BBC, Curtis has never quite gotten over it: Despite the slenderest thread of plot running through his stories, they are essentially sloppy strings of vignettes, moments calculated to score cheap emotional points, padded with can’t-miss musical upholstery.


    With its torn-from-the-yellowing-headlines story, “Pirate Radio” is  about the rebel broadcasters who provided rock-radio-starved Britons with all that brilliant mid-‘60s pop, blasted from outside UK territorial waters (we’d call them “underground” if they weren’t floating). It  involves no shortage of musical opportunities, or hipster posturing.  But what it adds up to isn’t a movie. And all the set pieces, calculated to create a feeling of renegade joy, and youth and freedom, are completely hogtied by Curtis’s fealty to a sitcom sensibility, an advertiser’s aesthetic and a poker player’s instinct: If you turn up the music and quicken the editing and have the characters constantly congratulating each other’s brilliant senses of humor, maybe you’ll bluff the audience into believing that what they’re watching is really hip. And maybe it is. And, maybe it’s just two deuces, a four, a five and a joker.


     Unearthing his Lester Bangs characterization from “Almost Famous,” Philip Seymour Hoffman makes a few easy bucks playing The Count, the lone American member of  the radio crew and the John Belushi manqué in what is intended as an “Animal House at Sea.” Drugs are apparently all over the boat (although you never see them); there’s no shortage of sex (groupies arrive by the boatload).  Again, like “Almost Famous,” the POV is provided by a naēf teenager, Carl (Tom Sturridge), who’s been expelled from school and arrives on board to stay with his godfather Quentin (a terrific Bill Nighy). Carl’s dearest wish is to lose his virginity. Shocking. What kind of adolescent is he? He wants sex? Holy shit!  And yet, despite his alarming aberrations, there is no reason to care about Carl. He’s devoid of personality, or drama, and his search for his father is utterly unengaging. But he does serve as a stand-in for the viewer’s inner twerp. So one’s response to Carl may depend on the depth of one’s own adolescent pain.


    As said above, the narrative of “Pirate Radio” is served up in chunks, few of which have any charm, or plausibility. One involves the naēve DJ Simon’s marriage to hottie Eleanor (cue The Turtles song!) who announces on the morning after their wedding night that she’s only married Simon so she could live aboard the boat and be near the sauve and seedy sex god Gavin (Rhys Ifans). The entire situation was so absurd I had to consciously lift my lower jaw off my chest. In another sketch, which is all you can call it, Dave, another DJ, decides to help Carl lose his virginity by 1) getting a woman in bed 2)  turning the lights 3) excusing himself and 4) having Carl come in the room in his place. It must have taken Curtis entire minutes to come up with this.


    In an effort to avenge Simon’s bruised ego, the Count challenges Gavin to a duel, of sorts – a game of chicken in which each man will climb as high up the ship’s mast as his cojones will allow. The questions, of course, abound: Why is the Count involved? What is climbing the mast got to do with anything? What they trying to prove? Is something a stake? Yes, it gets the two men in uncomfortable positions, vertically and otherwise, but it feels – as do most of these little episodes – like filler.


      There are well over 50 rock classics incorporated into the movie (some of which date well after the period covered in the film) and the use of music in “Pirate Radio” is nothing less than shameless. It’s to be expected that shards of songs, snippets, will be employed in a soundtrack, but the parts that Curtis does use get edited in ways meant to move certain hooks to certain places, or eliminate what only the tin-eared would consider unnecessary parts of the records. It’s the way pop hits are used in TV commercials and it’s an affront to the artists “Pirate Radio” is supposed to be honoring, given how its characters are so, so devoted to getting rock to a public deprived of its music by a constipated British government. Or certain factions therein.


   Which brings us to the one part of the movie that works, the one featuring Kenneth Branagh as a government minister named Dormandy  who wants Radio Rock closed down because… well, just because. His efforts to scuttle the station provides a parallel narrative to the mischief out on the North Sea -- and given the inanity out there, he’s not entirely unsympathetic. Some viewers may want more in the way of psychological insight into Dormandy and his hatred for the pornographic barbarians he hears defying English propriety with their filthy wits and heathen music, but with his vaguely Hitler mustache and pipeline into bureaucratic soullessness, Branagh makes Dormandy perfectly clear. He doesn’t care about the music, or the hippies on the boat. He cares that they’re defying HIM. He’s a perfect personification of banality and minor-league evil, and Branagh suffers, not because of any deficiency in his performance, but because the targets of his anger do so little to inspire us.  


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