Pirate Radio: It's Almost Famous Meets Empire Records—on a Motherfucking Boat!

Pirate Radio: It's Almost Famous Meets Empire Records—on a Motherfucking Boat!

PIRATE RADIO I’m sick of these motherfucking baby boomers on this motherfucking boat!

A sideways tribute to legendary DJ John Peel (whose name is never mentioned in the broadly explanatory intertitles that bookend the film), Pirate Radio fabulizes the real story of how pirate radio stations broadcasting from off the coast of England ushered rock 'n' roll onto the airwaves of the BBC. What could be a genuinely interesting historical piece is instead turned into fluffy, Rolling Stone–style "talkin' 'bout my generation" self-congratulatory baby boomer back-patting—did you know that rock 'n' roll changed everything forever?—by way of a script so hammy and shallow that it can't even land as farce (e.g., the mean, old, repressed government bureaucrats in their comically gray halls of power).

Had they cast Jack Black in the film's lead role, you might have seen this coming. Instead, there's Philip Seymour Hoffman, who, perhaps sensing a script he could safely dead-man's-float through, opts to reprise his role as Lester Bangs from Almost Famous—and he even has another floppy-haired, moppet-faced scamp to mentor! His charge this time, Carl (adorable young limey Tom Sturridge, who IMDb claims "is good friends with Twilight star Robert Pattinson"), is onboard the Radio Rock boat by order of his posh, morally loose mum for reasons that make no sense but that you won't care about anyway, since Carl, like the rest of this movie's squandered ensemble, has all the character development of the Monkees. There's the groovy patriarch (Carl's godfather), the frazzled hippie, the black mod, the mute Jim Morrison clone, the lecherous proto–glam rocker, the lesbian, and your standard array of record nerds both bulbous and concave.

The overarching narrative, told in cuts from ship to shore, consists of some harrumphing minister's attempt to shut pirate radio down. In a tacked-on subplot (can a thing be tacked on to a thing that seems to be entirely made out of tacks?), Carl searches for the father he never knew among the ship's crew. There are several scenes of late-night conversations and games and high jinks meant to establish the camaraderie of the shipmates (who nevertheless "roger" each others' "birds" at every opportunity). There are many, many montages set to popular song.

The song choices—and make no mistake, this flimsy film is little more than an attempt to sell a soundtrack of catalog cuts to one of the only demographics that still buys CDs—are as unsubtle as anything, with selections corresponding literally to characters' names, so that when Carl is feeling glum about Marianne, we hear Leonard Cohen's "So Long, Marianne." Speaking of, most of the film's little winning humor is mined from Carl's tragically awkward attempts to lose his virginity (truly uncharted waters there).

What younger viewers might find most anachronistic and alien about all this isn't the boomer soundtrack or vintage fashions, but the idea that these people would risk their lives for records and the opportunity to broadcast them. These days, they'd just start a blog, there'd be no outlaw adventures on the high seas, and they wouldn't have literal boatloads of ladies clamoring for their attentions. Not that my generation's bitter about it or anything. recommended

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Comments (14) RSS

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I thought it was Good Morning Vietnam, without the war.
Posted by Luckier on November 11, 2009 at 7:05 PM · Report this
sidereal 2
Is that Bill Nighy dancing in loafers up there? This film is not in his IMDB page, but I'm contractually obligated to watch every Bill Nighy film. Even Underworld: Rise of the Lycans.
Posted by sidereal on November 11, 2009 at 8:09 PM · Report this
@2, It's under working title: "The Boat That Rocked". And I feel the same way about Bill Nighy movies!
Posted by Soileau on November 11, 2009 at 9:10 PM · Report this
I hear they recut this for the American release to make it all about PSH's character. (I saw the UK release, which was 2 hours long and actually was pretty good. I bought the DVD a month or so ago and it had 1 hour + of deleted scenes, which really explains why the film feels so hit-and-miss - they had to take most of it out...)
Posted by J A D on November 12, 2009 at 3:17 AM · Report this
Thirding Bill Nighy. I cannot say no!
Posted by Leoba on November 12, 2009 at 3:50 AM · Report this
When I saw the previews for this flick, this headline is EXACTLY what I thought!!! And for that reason, I want to see it because Almost Famous and Empire Records are guilty pleasures of mine. The fashion and music make it worth checking out if you are odd like me and find those other two flicks enjoyable. "I'm not a groupie – I'm a band-aid."

Plus Bill Nighy, fuck yeah.
Posted by hoss on November 12, 2009 at 11:43 AM · Report this
Is it just me, or did Philip Seymour Hoffman base his character on Captain Paul Watson of "Whale Wars?" I haven't seen the film, but it sure looks that way from the previews, which makes it kind of hilarious.
Posted by save the radio, motherfucker! on November 12, 2009 at 12:26 PM · Report this
I too saw this in the UK release as "The Boat That Rocked." While it was all pretty silly, it was very entertaining and endearing. Another fun movie in a long line of the new British ensemble comedies. From the guy who made Love Actually.
Posted by Natty on November 12, 2009 at 1:28 PM · Report this
highfives 9
i would have liked to see this done as a documentary.
Posted by highfives on November 12, 2009 at 2:04 PM · Report this
scary tyler moore 10
Bill Nighy. Rhys Ifans. tall blonde British blokes. i'm going to watch my DVD again tonight and hope for wicked dreams.
Posted by scary tyler moore on November 13, 2009 at 10:17 PM · Report this
vitupera 11
@9: Yeah, seconded. When I was watching the (American release) trailer, they presented it as much more true to the actual history, and then it turned out to be just a straight-up comedy. I thought it was cute, but it wasn't what I came to see.
Posted by vitupera on November 16, 2009 at 10:10 AM · Report this
Several - more than a few - of the songs the DJs are shown playing in the film had not actually been released when the film was supposed to be taking place (the year 1966) but came out in late 1967, 68 & 69 . . . .but Bill Nighy is a God among trolls, esp here
Posted by notaboomer on November 18, 2009 at 12:14 AM · Report this
Jocelyn 13
@ 9 - that is because you are pretentious. This movie looks funny and stupid, which I'm sure is all it's trying to be.

Also, though it is a cheesy choice at that particular moment, "So Long, Marianne" is a great song. Chill out, everybody.
Posted by Jocelyn on November 20, 2009 at 11:55 PM · Report this
It's astonishing that it doesn't occur to the writer that Marianne's name was chosen precisely to fit that particular song in. I mean, do you seriously think the character's name (of no significance) came before the song, rather than the (obvious) other way around?
Posted by laddie on August 9, 2010 at 5:40 PM · Report this

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