Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 6, 2010)
Given the nearly infinite sources of entertainment available today, it becomes increasingly difficult to recall an era in which options were much more limited. While Americans didn’t have a ton of choices, our situation beat that of the Brits. For music, BBC Radio was the only authorized game in town, and they didn’t give much airtime to that newfangled rock ‘n’ roll music.
As a reaction to this, independent parties set up quasi-legal offshore stations to give the people what they wanted. 2009’s Pirate Radio uses that situation as the basis for its period character-based comedy.
Set in the summer of 1966, teenaged Carl (Tom Sturridge) gets booted from school due to smoking. To straighten him out, his mother sends Carl to live with his godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy). It happens that Quentin works as the manager of a pirate radio station based on a boat floating off the shore of England.
As Carl settles into this unusual setting, he meets the inhabitants of the boat. This motley crew includes deejays such as “The Count” (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the lone American, and chubby lothario “Doctor Dave” (Nick Frost) as well as Carl’s dense roommate Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke). Carl gets to know this group as he also strives to mature and become a man.
Alas, dark clouds gather on the horizon. Stuffy bureaucrat Sir Alastair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) despises the pirates and works hard to stop them. His assistant Twatt (Jack Davenport) collaborates with Dormandy to figure out a legal method to eliminate the pirates.
At its heart, Radio serves as a gushy love letter to a bygone era in which Music Really Mattered. I suspect it’ll appeal most to the Baby Boomers, as they’ll enjoy the glorification of arguably rock’s most vital era. One doesn’t have to be 50-something or up to get into the film’s investment for rock, though, as its spirit comes through and reminds us why the era’s music was so exhilarating.
And for roughly its first act, Radio is a pretty delightful flick. Sure, it really has no plot, a fact that doesn’t improve as it progresses. Radio is so loose it can’t even be called episodic. It flits from one minor character event to another with little coherence or smoothness, but that’s not really a problem – at least not for a while. The goofy characters, the fun situations and the raw energy are enough to sustain us in the short term.
Eventually, however, they’re just not enough to create a satisfying movie. As I mentioned, plotting remains negligible. Carl ostensibly acts as the lead; we follow his path to romantic maturity as well as his attempts to track down his long-lost father. We also see quite a lot of Dormandy and Twatt in their quest to kill pirate radio.
However, none of those threads really occupies a whole lot of screen time. We find far too many extraneous character episodes to consider the various “main plots” to be… well, to be main plots. They’re more dominant than anything else, but they don’t play a central part in the movie.
Which means that most of the time, Radio plays like a rambling, ramshackle mess. As I mentioned, the film remains engaging for a while due to its sheer anarchic energy. On first glance, we’re amused and diverted by the wacky characters and their shenanigans.
But then Radio takes a fatal turn, as it tries to get serious – sort of. Though the movie already starts to veer off-course prior to this moment, one scene marks the official point at which Radio lost me. Simon the deejay (Chris O’Dowd) marries a girl (January Jones) who quickly throws a major complication into their relationship. The filmmakers can’t quite decide whether to play this really gut-wrenching moment for drama or for laughs.
As a result, it achieves neither and accomplishes nothing other than to fully disengage the viewer. The scene makes one of the flick’s “main” characters wholly unlikable, and the story never manages to erase our memory of this incident. Oh, the movie itself moves on like it never happened; the others briefly ostracize the sleazy character in question, but he quickly returns to the fold and all scars become healed.
For the movie characters, at least – the viewer may find it more difficult to forgive and forget. Not that the offense remains an open wound, but I simply think the film never gets back on track after this awful misstep. The scene in question turns dark enough that we can’t quite invest in the old comedic chaos again.
On the other hand, even if Radio lost the appalling scene and those that feature its aftermath – which it could easily do and we’d never know – too many other problems mar the film’s second and third acts. The simple lack of story or well-drawn characters turns into a real flaw. In small doses, we have fun, but the more time we spend with the various participants, the more we realize how thin they are.
That’s a problem for all of the roles, but especially for Carl. If this is a “coming of age” tale, shouldn’t the youngster in question show actual growth? I don’t see that in Carl. Oh, he busts his cherry, but I don’t see any greater depth to the character. He’s a shy, awkward kid when he arrives on the boat, and he’s a slightly less shy, awkward kid when he departs.
At 117 minutes, Radio isn’t a particularly long movie, and the version viewed by Americans is substantially shorter than the cut that played in Britain; entitled The Boat That Rocked in that territory, it ran 135 minutes. The 117-minute edition of Radio sure feels really long, however. When I saw it theatrically, I was sure a good two hours, 10 minutes or more had passed since the film started. I was shocked to see that only 117 minutes had gone by; the movie felt much longer.
And that isn’t a good thing – not ever, but especially not when you enter a flick that should offer a breezy, light affair. On one hand, I’m reluctant to say that Radio should be shorter; its characters and story elements are already thin, so a briefer screentime would make them even less well-developed. However, the existing flick feels so long that I believe an abbreviated version could be more satisfying.
In truth, Radio probably should’ve left out a lot of the on-boat antics and boiled things down to the fight between the pirates and Dormandy. That would give the flick a more concise plot, and it would accentuate the film’s biggest strength: the hilariously uptight performance by Branagh. At least until the movie makes him genuinely heartless during its wholly unnecessary – but loooooong - “climax”, Branagh provides consistent laughs. He’s a joy to watch.
As is much of the cast, honestly. Whatever flaws I find here, I can’t blame the actors. With talents like Hoffman, Nighy, Branagh, Rhys Ifans, Ralph Brown and many others, Radio overflows with excellent performers. I believe that the actors and the actors alone make it entertaining; the rest of the flick is a mess, but they create some enjoyable moments.
Unfortunately, even the greatest cast in the world can’t redeem a movie with so many overt flaws. Pirate Radio takes on an intriguing topic and has its heart in the right place. It just doesn’t create something remotely coherent enough to succeed.
One final nerdy complaint: Radio abounds with anachronistic musical choices. The movie covers roughly six months from the summer of 1966 through the winter of 1967. We find more than a few songs that didn’t yet exist in that time frame. Most of these stay reasonably close to 1966/1967, though “Won’t Get Fooled Again” takes us all the way to 1971!
I think a film devoted to an appreciation of the era’s music should work harder to ensure accuracy. When I hear 1968 songs in a 1966 movie, it takes me out of the tale’s reality. It’s not that hard to check release dates, so there’s no excuse for the anachronistic choices.
On the other hand, I do forgive Radio its absence of Beatles tunes. While the flick should include many of these - Revolver was brand-new during the movie’s period – we don’t hear a single note of music from the Fabs. I believe this occurs due to rights issues – or more accurately, due to the cost of licensing Beatles songs.
Radio isn’t exactly a mega-bucks production, and I’m sure that if the producers snagged some Beatles tracks, they’d have had to lose many other numbers. It made more sense for them to buy five non-Fabs tunes if they cost the same as one Beatles song. In this instance, quantity is more important than quality; yes, it’d be great – and logical – if Radio featured a Beatles track or two, but the soundtrack boasts more than enough other big names to almost allow us to forget the absence of the Liverpudlians. Almost.
Really final footnote: stay tuned through the end credits for a little extra footage.