Pirate Radio Review: A Heartfelt but an Inevitably Misguided and Average Comedy

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Ever since American Graffiti came to the screen in the early 70s films have continuously tried to incorporate a soundtrack that fits the style, tone, and era of the films settings. Many filmmakers today also try to use their personal music taste as a story guide or even just a dialogue plot point such as Zach Braff’s independent film Garden State or more recently Marc Webb’s (500) Days of Summer. In Richard Curtis’ new film Pirate Radio, previously titled The Boat That Rocked, is entirely structured around a soundtrack that works mostly in its favor to salvage a project that is at both times stretched and absent of quality material. Anyone familiar with Curtis’ earlier work, including Love Actually, knows that he is the kind of director that would choose a script filled with unchallenged idealism and flimsy character development. This is the case with Pirate Radio that has good use of the acting talent on the screen but never ventures to explore these supposedly unique characters beyond their already present state of being. The characters at times feel real and bring an energy to the screen that is a tad humorous if not absolutely funny, but in the long run the film is a forgettable homage to the 60s rock movement that most people won’t bother to see nor should they go out of their way to experience.

Everyone knows the controversy of rock n roll when it first gained momentum in the late 50s and early 60s and how traditionalists couldn’t bear the loud and obscene music. The British government wouldn’t play a single hour of rock n roll on the radio so vigilante private radio broadcasters roamed the seas outside Britain to play the music they loved for all to hear. This is, of course, the plot of this simplistic film focusing on one particular boat that had an eclectic crew that is charming and tends to redeem the horrid plot offshoots and overall stretched story. A young man named Carl, played diligently by newcomer Tom Sturridge, has been sent to live with his Godfather Quentin, played by the always dependable Bill Nighy, who runs the Radio Rock boat. With Quentin is the vulgar American DJ “The Count,” who is portrayed in exquisite fashion by the talented Phillip Seymour Hoffman. When Hoffman is off the screen the film drags and becomes quite dull, exposing the weak script but also accentuating Hoffman’s brilliance as a character presence in everything he does. The crew runs into trouble when a determined and obsessed government official targets the pirates to take rock n roll off the air. What is so unfortunate about this typical antagonist direction is that Kenneth Branagh is horribly underused for his talent and the character comes off more as a cartoon rather than a plausible villain. But the film tugs along (no pun intended) with the rest of the cast including notable appearances from Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, and Chris O’Dowd.

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While the cast makes for a decent viewing experience the film’s script lacks identifiable comedic originality. The scenarios are predictable, the characters actions seem too planned, and the jokes tend to fall flat if not at all. Unfortunately good presence on the screen and charming personality can only get the film so far. Curtis is notorious for making overly optimistic projects that seem to create characters he wishes were real rather than making them real to his audience which is a huge problem for this comedy. When Dr. Dave (Nick Frost) sleeps with newcomer Carl’s love interest there seems to be no remorse with Dr. Dave nor does the inevitable conclusion seem any more realistic with Carl rationalizing his low self-esteem. Another overly done scene is when Simon (Chris O’Dowd) has been despicably used by a woman who only married him to be on the boat with her real lover becomes a waved away problem later on never venturing into the real conflict this would actually create in our reality. The entire film is filled with examples of unbelievable reactions and a build up to a forceful and typical Hollywood ending. Nothing about Pirate Radio screams originality despite its dedication to a genre of music that dared to be original and free.

But of course this film wasn’t aimed at being an original tale of courageous rebellion for freedom of expression, anti-censorship, and the living of dreams but instead paid homage to the greatest generation for rock by filling the film with examples of that music. And the soundtrack is great, hearing artists such as The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix should make you remember why you fell in love with music even if you don’t enjoy rock n roll. The heart is definitely existent in Curtis’ film because his light approach always puts smiles on people’s faces. But with heart should be a struggle for that achievement and unfortunately the film doesn’t have a powerful villainous force or strong personal problems to make that struggle palpable for the audience. The film focuses on the wrong elements more often than it focuses on the correct ones such as a personal ambition between two very popular DJs: The Count and the overtly sexual Gavin. It’s a joyful project, one that is of the typical Hollywood variety that some will enjoy, others will love, but most will find forgettable.

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Soundtracks can be quite fun when exploring how they relate to the story, the characters, and the message of the film. However, when one finds a soundtrack first and then decides to make a film out of it, the story tends to get a bit convoluted and stretched for coherent material. Richard Curtis knows how to make a decent and heartfelt tale but where the heart is there should be a struggle and difficulty to obtain it. These elements are unfortunately missed in Pirate Radio which struggles itself to be a memorable and decent comedy. If there were any sort of recommendation to be made with this film it would be forget about seeing it in the theater and spend very little money on the rental. All of the characters charms and personalities are lost in Curtis’ delusional idealism which loses all sense of life’s difficulties and our individual growth. But the soundtrack is quite good if that’s what supposedly matters in films these days.

Grade: C+

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