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Pirate Radio sounds like a terrific idea for true-life comedy set in the heart of England's swingin' sixties. Rock 'n' Roll music was effectively banned from the airwaves during the height of the "British Invasion" years, so to fill the gap a number of outlaw radio stations broadcast from ships and abandoned oil platforms just outside the twelve-mile limit. The possibilities are seemingly limitless, as the main characters are the wild & crazy disc jockeys of the airwaves, helping England to rock out while the stuffy folk back at the BBC and the Home Office gripe about the erosion of the noble culture of the land of Shakespeare.
Pirate Radio sports a talented cast, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nick Frost and Bill Nighy. The impressive production includes a bravura scene of a ship sinking, and a wall-to-wall parade of 60s radio hits keeps the soundscape hopping. But the sad fact is that the film is a near miss. It's like a floating mod-rocker version of Robert Altman's M*A*S*H, but without much of a focus beyond gratuitous sex jokes. Writer-director Richard Curtis (Love Actually) staffs the pirate radio ship Radio Rock with at least fifteen comic personalities, none of whom get enough attention to establish strong characters, even on the comedic plane. Curtis's jokes all go for the quick payoff instead of building to anything with a point.
The Bad Boys of Rock are a self-obsessed bunch, amusing but uninspiring; marooning them all offshore sounds like a fine idea. The hot disc jockeys compete for women as well as status on the popularity pecking order. Solo Yankee "The Count" (Philip Seymour Hoffman) resents losing the top roost to the returning superstar platter spinner Gavin (Rhys Ifans). "Doctor Dave" (Nick Frost) leads the middle group of velvet-voiced physical misfits to new heights of radio popularity. Just as in an Altman film, the other DJs are typed as shy, straight-laced, or amiable; one is a silent sort rumored to be able to seduce women without even talking to them, and another is a mystery man nobody ever sees. There's the humorless news guy and the dense helper dubbed with the moniker "Thick Kevin". Playing mother hen to this collection of kooks is Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), whose status as a lesbian is treated as if it were a source of infinite humor. Everyone is obsessed with sex, as the only females allowed on board visit on a bi-weekly overnight that turns the ship into a college dorm infested with horn-dogs. Captaining this Ship of Fools is the eccentric Quentin (Bill Nighy), an older gent enamored of his status as a modern day pirate. Quentin can't even get his DJs to refrain from using the f___ word on the air.
The storyline is a loose collection of anecdotes. Quentin's godson Carl (Tom Sturridge) crashes out of college and immediately takes to the erratic lifestyle aboard Radio Rock. Doctor Dave sets him up with Quentin's hot-to-trot niece Marianne (Talulah Riley) but then seduces her himself. The Count and Gavin duke it out in an escalating double-dare challenge that ends with them climbing to the ship's topmost mast. Nice guy DJ "Simple" Simon (Chris O'Dowd) is in ecstasy with his marriage to the girl of his dreams, only to discover that it's a ruse to allow her to be near her real love object, the studly Gavin. Carl eventually puts together the mystery of his parentage after a visit from his mother, an upper-class adventuress from way back (Emma Thompson).
Most of these hi-jinks are at least amusing and some are truly funny. Curtis sells their popularity with montages of ordinary Brits rejoicing in their Robin Hood antics. The DJs have their act down, in a slick fashion that reminds us a bit of WKRP in Cincinnati, and individually the characters have their cute qualities. But playing goofball games with this bunch of nuts seems too easy.
The director's search for a consistent tone is scrambled by a disastrously conceived secondary story. A priggish government minister (Kenneth Branagh) enlists a dirty tricks agent (Jack Davenport) to find a legal excuse to scuttle the pirate ships forever. In contrast to the fairly hip mood established out in the Channel, this parallel story plays like a bad episode of The Benny Hill Show, with Branagh's mentally constipated minister dishing out threats to his subordinates and behaving as a complete hypocrite. The level of comedy here is to name Jack Davenport's character Mr. Twatt, and his secretary Miss Clit, thereby creating a pointlessly crude joke with every introduction. Curtis must have been reaching for something but we can't tell what; this part of the story just dies, dragging the movie down with it.
When Pirate Radio decides to become semi-serious for the finale, we aren't properly prepared. Davenport has successfully shut down all sea-based radio stations on a technicality of maritime safety. Like gladiators standing up for Spartacus, the DJs vote to soldier on as bona fide outlaws. The good ship Radio Rock weighs anchor, leaving Twatt's Navy assault team (Twatt's SWATs?) to mistakenly invade an innocent fishing boat. When the radio ship founders and begins to sink, the evil Davenport stalls rescue efforts, but a Dunkirk-like armada of private craft (manned by eager female fans) comes to the rescue. All of this, of course, is played out under an umbrella of constant rock music.
We want to love Pirate Radio, and that's the pity. The overall smug attitude and the badly judged nasty-government subplot dull the fun, and although the impressive sinking sequence is quite exciting, we never really feel engaged in the proceedings. Perhaps it's a case of too many goofy characters, with none we can really identify with.
Universal's Blu-ray of Pirate Radio will sell itself just with its bright picture. The ship interior is an attractive setting and the various scenes above deck convince us that we're in the rainy English Channel. The ample playlist of top sixties hits is another source of fun -- although I'm pretty sure that I heard some anachronistic Who tunes from a few years later. The playlist contains no Beatles hits, which is understandable from a licensing point of view but strange all the same.
The extras include a commentary with director Curtis, actors Nick Frost and Chris O'Dowd and one of the producers. A hefty selection of featurettes tells the story of the filming from several angles. Many of the events of the show, including the accidental sinking of a pirate radio ship, actually happened back in the 1960s.
Pirate Radio was originally almost twenty minutes longer. Director Curtis comments over a long selection of deleted scenes, most of which were wisely dropped. One large chunk of material addresses the Radio Rock's sabotage mission to wipe out a new competitor ship. When the victimized DJs try to play ruined records and altered audiotapes, the gag backfires -- our "heroes" come off as real jerks. A wise deletion.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Pirate Radio Blu-ray rates:
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