I like Richard Curtis. I really do. The man directed "Love Actually" for heaven's sake, crafting one of the most charming and stark romantic comedies of the last 30 years. But his "Pirate Radio" is a flawed piece of work, at times utterly paralyzed by muddled whimsy. It'll take some effort from the viewer to sort through this cluttered feature film, but the reward is an opportunity to witness profound respect for the power of music, articulated by a throng of gifted, uninhibited actors Curtis spends most of the feature trying to corral more than simply direct.
It's the mid-1960s, and British radio is essentially ignoring the rise of iconic rock acts as they tear through popular culture. Here to help the infection is the boat Radio Rock, home to a pirate radio station, which employs some of the fiercest on-air talent around, under the guidance of Captain Quentin (Bill Nighy). For DJs Gavin (Rhys Ifans), The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Dr. Dave (Nick Frost), Bob (Ralph Brown), Simon (Chris O'Dowd), and Angus (Rhys Darby), life on the ship is pure recreation, with rock blaring all day and excitable women making occasional visits. On land, government minister Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) is looking to shut down pirate radio for good, bringing ambitious civil servant Twatt (Jack Davenport) in to help concoct a plan that will stop the supposed filth from poisoning the populace.
Actually, "Pirate Radio" was "The Boat That Rocked" for most of its worldwide theatrical life, undergoing a name change and runtime reduction (about 20 minutes was cut) to help streamline a film for American audiences that wasn't having too much luck at the box office. An awful replacement title for sure, but the edits are welcome in an already crowded motion picture. Curtis, looking to do for the British Invasion and virginity what he did for relationships in "Love Actually," doesn't fashion a suitable concentration for the material, which wanders around on a quest to be profound and giddy, but mostly comes across blind. Curtis can't locate a suitable tenor for his material, instead spraying the screen with wild personalities, delicious soundtrack selections (including The Kinks, The Beach Boys, and The Who), and vague declarations of rebellion.
I'm not suggesting "Pirate Radio" is a joyless experience; with a cast this diverse and willing to please, the film maintains a few highlights, most concerning the on-air antics of the DJs as they push the barriers of taste and revel in the majestic music. Curtis arranges a community of competition and friendship to give the cast something to chew on, leading to some strained moments of tension, especially the unconvincing rivalry between The Count and hipster Gavin (which requires the pair to play a film-stopping game of chicken as they climb to the highest area of the ship to prove their masculinity). Sexual games are also afoot, with plenty of giggly groupies around to help pollute the serene air onboard.
The film's lead is actually Carl (Tom Sturridge), a teenaged virgin sent to the ship for purposes unclear to him at the outset. Carl is the audience POV for the Radio Rock, who struggles to keep track of all the treachery and bravado of the staff. His subplot carries insufficient weight, and the push from the DJs to help Carl advance sexually leads to hilariously melodramatic bouts of implausible betrayal. Curtis is adamant to keep Carl the center of attention, but Sturridge's unappealing performance (mostly made of mope and greasy hair) mixed with the script's shortcomings fail to further the madcap mood of the film.
The VC-1 encoded presentation (2.35:1 aspect ratio) is actually quite pleasant, with a nice fine grain to help the film to a superb film-like quality, cheering on the dazzling retro vibe of the material. Colors are also extraordinary, with a beautiful representation of eccentric costumes and environmental changes, with a generous push of oranges and yellows. Detail is extensive, with solid facial response and set dressing particulars, further developing the '60's mood. Black levels do smother the image during lowlight sequences, dampening the occasional moody effect.
The 5.1 DTS-HD is wonderfully pronounced, with explicit attention paid to the film's onslaught of soundtrack selections. The raw, deep power is felt through a slight boost of the rock songs, which necessitates a slight riding of the volume dial, but also brings a sharp feeling of musical dominance throughout the film, filling the surrounds with all those golden hits. Water environments bring a consistent routine of atmospherics to the mix, with generous directional effects both above and below the deck. Dialogue is clean and discernible, with the noisy ruckus of the radio performers easy to understand and place into proper dramatic context. French and Spanish tracks are also available.
English SDH, Spanish, and French subtitles are available.
The feature-length audio commentary with director Richard Curtis, producer Hilary Bevan Jones, and actors Nick Frost and Chris O'Dowd keeps to a rowdy comedic tone, less academic than desired, but fairly amusing as the group (minus a near-silent Jones) attempts to explain the film to the listener. Curtis leads the discussion with his relaxed style, while Frost and O'Dowd provide the jokes and inside baseball actor thoughts. Technical details are brought up (including an interesting bit on the "Rock Level" -- a gauge that helped Curtis to select the sway of the boat), but most of the track is devoted to a playful banter, which is enjoyable, if not entirely thrilling.
"Featurettes" (19:36) pieces together several mini-documentaries to form an educational whole, covering the history of pirate radio with personal recollections from the cast and crew, Curtis's musical genius, the shoot on the actual boat, bringing the production to a massive set, figuring out DJ routines, and the trouble of shooting with 35 naked women. Ah, to have such problems.
"Deleted Scenes" (68:34) offer 13 sequences that Richard Curtis believes could've been easily swapped into the film without much fuss. Most concern the camaraderie on the boat, with egg pranks, naughty wordplay, Guatemalan dance parties, a sequence of actual piracy against a rival radio boat that prefers Herman's Hermits to The Beatles, and a stag night visit to London. There's also a silly bit where Mr. Twatt meets secretary Ms. Clitt. Funny? Eh, but the performances shine through. The BD contains three exclusive deleted scenes. They can be viewed with or without slightly fatigued intros from possibly depressed Curtis.
A Theatrical Trailer has not been included.
Curtis lunges for a massive grand finale, not content with the Dormandy subplot to act as the film's only threat, allowing matters to frantically dissolve just to place a definitive, defiant exclamation point on the picture. The director's intent appears to be the celebration of rock music and its enduring, tongue-extended spirit, and the movie finds occasional inspiration with this commotion. However, by the conclusion, "Pirate Radio" is asking for more than it gives, making the whole act of music appreciation feel silly, especially if it means indulging in this much pointless hysteria. "Pirate Radio" slips out of Curtis's control early on, and try as he might with this sparkling cast and soundtrack supremacy, the film never returns to solid ground.
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