Pirate Radio (aka The Boat That Rocked)

pirate radio pirate radio Pirate Radio poster

There's a something for everyone in "Pirate Radio," Richard Curtis' new, structurally messy ensemble comedy. Among its subjects are male camaraderie, deviance in the form of music rebellion, a sweet virginal boy who needs to get laid, a boy who needs to find his birth father (same boy), eccentric D.J's who come in every age, form and shape, a boat that endlessly rocks with music and chaos, even a lesbian chef. 

Problem is, overall the movie is not funny or inventive or shapely enough to rise above the sharply uneven aggregate of sketches, episodes, and one-liners (some of which are actually funny).  Moreover, the feature doesn't know when or how to end. The last reel, in which the radio boat begins to sink a la Titanic, goes forever. And the sentimentality, as the closing credits are about to roll down, is so saccharine that it almost negates the rude and crude dialogue that precedes it.
 
Opening in the U.K. and in Australia under the title of "The Boat That Rocked," the movie has divided film critics, and I expect the same divisive reaction would prevail when Focus Features release it next month under the new, more prosaic title "Pirate Radio."
 
The best elements about this production are the music and the acting, or most of the acting. "Pirate Radio" feels like a nostalgic ode to the great hits of the 1960s, a love poem to pop songs that changed the music scene radically and shaped not only our tastes, but also the entire culture we live in now.
 
Inspired by the fact-based tale of a seafaring band of rogue rock and roll deejays, whose pirate radio enchanted and inspired Britain in the swinging 1960s, the movie goes out of its way to be irreverent, but the sweat shows.  "Pirate Radio" is one movie that can't be accused of being subtle; it hits you over the head with a sledgehammer.
 
The beginning of the yarn is rather promising, though.  Playing the music that rocked a whole country, and a rather conservative one at that, for a whole decade, the group boldly and hilariously managed to defy government bureaucratic orders, which tried to shut it down permanently, until the very end—literally.
 
Why was it so upsetting to the ruling class? Broadcasting live 24/7 from an old tanker anchored in the middle of the North Sea (just beyond British jurisdiction), Radio Rock sent out a vibrant enough and unifying signal to millions of listeners across the nation.
 
We get to see the captivated public through endless reaction shots, with each and every gesture, to what's broadcast on the air. The crowd ranges in age from wide-eyed pre-teens secretly tuning in long past their bedtime, exposed for the first time to the "F" word, which naturally upsets their teachers and parents. But it also includes ordinary adults, mostly women, in need of a musical pick-me-up.
 
The first reel engages our attention by introducing the members of the wild bunch. The Radio Rock roster is overseen by Quentin (Bill Nighy, doing his routine shtick), the unflappable station owner and ship's captain, who has the habit of interrupting activities with statements that begin with, "There's good news and there's bad news. Which would you like to hear first?" 
 
With long hair and beard and big belly, Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the Count, the risk-prone, gutsy and foul-mouthed guy–and the only American aboard the ship. Then there are Gavin (Rhys Ifans), the mystic deejay royalty adored by the crew; the idiosyncratic New Zealander Angus (Rhys Darby), and the quiet, rarely seen Bob (Ralph Brown).
 
Also members of the group are Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke); lovelorn Simon (Chris O'Dowd), the butt of many jokes, one of which taking place at his wedding night; ladies' magnet, smooth-talker Mark (Tom Wisdom), who somehow can get any woman who visits the ship into his bed; the shy Harold (Ike Hamilton), reporter news John (Will Adamsdale), and Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), the openly lesbian ship's cook.
 
Things change upon the arrival of Carl (Tom Sturridge), Quentin's teenaged godson, a handsome, romantic lad who harbors idealistic aspirations about love, hoping to fulfill them during one of the biweekly visits by Radio Rock's prettiest fans, not to mention his hope to find out his long-absent biological father. All his mom (Emma Thompson, miscast) told him was that she had sex with a man and then he disappeared. Carl soon realizes that any of the men aboard the ship might be his father. 
 
Though this is very much an ensemble piece, with at least a dozen characters, Carl is the closest to having a protagonist, sort of a cement in an ultimately futile effort to glue and unify the fractured proceedings.
 
While most of the action occurs on (and inside) the ship, Curtis' narrative goes back and forth between the free-wheeling, free-loving Radio Rock gang on the boat and London's politicos, formally dressed up in board meetings behind closed doors. This group is presided over by landlocked government minister Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh, looking and sounding terrible), a rigid administrator who has embarked on a nasty, vehement crusade to silent the gang's signal permanently, once and for all. Will he succeed?
 
With such a powerful enemy, in order to stay afloat and keep their devoted fans plugged in, Quentin and his crew rally together, keeping all their trust in the powerful music they play. And powerful it is. Relying all too often on musical montage, it's hard not to be swayed by the great melodies of the 1960s, many of which have since become classics. 
 
At least half of the running time is taken by the 50 or 60 songs played on the sound track (not all the tunes are played in their entirety), including "Silence Is Golden," "Judy in Disguise," "All Over the World," the Supremes' "The Happening" the Rolling Stones' "Jumpin' Jack Flash," Leonard Cohen's "So Long Marianne," "Eleanore," by John Barbata and Howard Kaylan, Jim Dale and Tom Springfield's "George Girl," the Beach Boys' "Little Saint Nick," and so on and son.
 
But, alas, as far as coherent writing and artistic discipline are concerned, Richard Curtis' pictures get weaker and weaker.  He began rather strongly with "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill," which he only scripted, and continued with "Love Actually," which he penned and directed.
 
One of the film's worst elements is the acting, most of which is bad, with reliable actors rendering one-note, irritating performances.  Particularly awaful are Nighy, who's too mannered, Thompson, who's either miscast or couldn't care less about her linesl and Branagh, who's so stiff that he makes his character even less sympathetic than he is on paper.  The only thespians who exude some charm are Tom Sturridge, who's likable as the Young Carl, and Chris O'Dowd, as the shy DJ Simon. 
 
Judging by his two latest efforts, Curtis is a more skillful and disciplined scribe than a helmer, especially for this kind of wild material.