When a film wants to do too many things, it can spell trouble. Such is the case for the English film Pirate Radio. It attempts to combine social and cultural elements related to the subject of music. It wants to make us laugh. It also wants to play us a lot of good songs from a particular era and wrap us in the arms of nostalgia. Unfortunately, Pirate Radio wants to do too much, and in the end, doesn't do any of it well enough.
It's got the backbone for a great story. The cast is a wonderful collection of funny actors such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Bill Nighy and Nick Frost. It's got a great soundtrack (although it was very annoying to hear song after song recorded after 1966 coming from the DJ booth). It has gorgeous shots of record needles being placed on spinning vinyl. It was written and directed by Richard Curtis, who was behind some good comedies during the years with Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), Notting Hill (1999) and Love Actually (2003). Despite all of this, the film never comes together.
Pirate Radio is set in the conservative world of England in 1966, at a time when radio was tightly controlled by government. Rock and roll is not allowed on the airwaves. Thankfully, for the youth of the nation, there are those who discover loopholes to get around the governmental broadcast restrictions and they take to the sea. Well, they anchor boats off-shore, their signals arriving in English cities and the countryside whether the government likes it or not.
The ships are low-tech radio stations where the DJs live insulated on board and play music 24 hours a day, transmitting from towers attached directly on the vessel. The DJs in Pirate Radio are a motley crew of males (and one woman) who fancy themselves as sailors and pirates as they unleash their personalities and electric hymns on the mainland. When not on the air, they love to drink, smoke, play games, pull pranks on each other, fornicate (when the groupies are allowed to come on board), and share meals and other forms of bonding. It's a regular musical band of brothers on the ship.
Things get complicated for the DJs when a certain governmental bureaucrat (Kenneth Branagh) takes an immense dislike for everything the floating station represents. He sees the boat and the music it plays as a prime example for the decline of the English empire. He begins to wield his power in attempting to come up with a law that would shut the station down and rid England of this scourge of moral depravity.
Curtis attempts to do something that is actually quite hard to accomplish in Pirate Radio: to make a comedy that not only entertains the audience but delivers a message regarding the subject matter's cultural importance. In this case, rock music and its effect on the population.
Loosely based on real events from the 1960s, Pirate Radio wants to get music's power and impact onscreen (while making the audience laugh), but more often than not Curtis falls short in achieving his goals.
The film's biggest problem is that it's not consistently funny. This was a surprise considering the cast. Despite the talent assembled, if a film is not funny and it's a comedy, something isn't right. Too much of the dialogue falls flat or feels disjointed and unnatural. The characters never surprise and are too predictable.
The constantly jumping back to the shocked and angry government officials never quite works. The plot is a patchwork of scenes on the boat, cut with scenes of stuffy government men fuming at their antics. There's no edge, no authentic rebellion on the screen. The film just has an assortment of oddballs and eccentrics living on a boat who happen to play music every so often. There are a lot of songs being played, but they come off as filler just to get to more antics by the DJs.
This lack of a connection between DJ, music and listener is a major weakness with Pirate Radio. We don't see how the music is embraced on the shore, as the bulk of the movie takes place on the ship. There are quick cuts to people listening clandestinely on land throughout the film, but there's no sense that these people are depending on the DJs to supply them with their social rebellion. In 1966, rock music was beginning to become more urgent; it was starting to become a matter of life and death for teenagers, and Pirate Radio never makes the audience feel that. I wanted to feel that.
Portraying teenage non-conformity on screen is never an easy task for a film to achieve without coming off as overdramatic and unrealistic. The same can be said for the effect of rock and roll in a teenager's personal and public dissent. Never has teenage revolution been so explosive than the decade of the 1960s. The tumultuous latter part of the decade unleashed an assortment of social, youth-based unrest that has not been approached since. The revolution had a soundtrack and it was rock and roll. Pirate Radio never taps into the true spirit of what rock meant to the teenage listener.
Pirate Radio never delivers on its promise. It takes all the ripe possibilities for something great--terrific music, quirky story loosely based on fact, an assortment of talented people--and does nothing with any of those opportunities. In the end, it's just a comedy without heart, substance and laughs... when it could have been much more.
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