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Pirate Radio

Dir: Richard Curtis

Rating: 1.0/5.0

Focus Features

115 Minutes

If you believe the movies, there was no other time like the late ’60s. The music was louder, the drugs were better, the sex was more carefree. Sure, that was a time when part of our society shook off the shackles of the staid ’50s and let fly the freak flag, but filmmakers tend to steep films set this milieu as the best of times, the Garden of Eden that has long been swallowed up by greed and corporations.

Pirate Radio continues this trend already revisited this year by Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock. Writer-director Richard Curtis (Love Actually) tells the story of a pirate radio ship docked off the coast of England that broadcasts rock ‘n’ roll, something a steely British government refuses to play on the radio. So this outlaw crew, led by aging hipster Quentin (Billy Nighy) and the Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), works around the clock to bring rock to Britain’s youth.

Though the mercurial spirit of this film may sound winsome and invigorating, let me share a little secret with you. Pirate Radio made me hate rock ‘n’ roll. There, I said it. This film is about as rock ‘n’ roll as George W. Bush’s inauguration dance with Ricky Martin. In fact, not only do the cliché characters, ridiculous plot points and extended run time sink this ship, Pirate Radio also neuters any song that appears on its soundtrack. Shit, the Stones, Hendrix and the Who have never felt as water-logged and safe than they do in this film.

The people who marketed this film will lead you to believe that Hoffman is the principal character, but that is not true at all. In fact, Pirate Radio focuses on young Carl (Tom Sturridge), the bright-eyed naïf who is the ringer for Patrick Fugit’s twit in the equally saccharine Almost Famous. Carl is sent to the ship as banishment for smoking (cigs and pot) at school and much of the film is dedicated to his musical and sexual deflowerment. Of course, there are numerous embarrassing scenes where Carl almost gets fucked, but instead falls into some embarrassing imbroglio. Maybe this type of humor had its place in American Pie, but virginity as a joke really feels kind of tired here. The jokes aren’t even funny, so limply pathetic.

Things just get worse from there. When a rival DJ (Rhys Ifans) arrives, Curtis builds up a confrontation with the incumbent Count. But this never goes anywhere and the tension is de-fanged by a ridiculous stunt where both characters are left crippled, on crutches and cowed. Then they play soccer in the next scene. Fully healed. You see what I’m saying. Meanwhile, the conservative opposition is headed by Kenneth Branagh’s civil servant who, for no apparent reason other than being mean and old-fashioned, has made it his personal mission to quash rock ‘n’ roll forever. It’s simply conflict for no reason and a boiling-down of the other side to a brash stereotype. Even worse, he has an assistant named Twatt. It’s not funny.

Curtis’ biggest transgression is the liberty he takes with his soundtrack. Sure, certain songs are emblematic of the ’60s, but Curtis’ appropriation of the tunes is not only wrong-headed, it makes these poignant tunes laughable. Carl misses an opportunity with a girl named Marianne. Cue “So Long, Marianne” by Leonard Cohen. Carl has to save his newfound father from drowning. On comes “Fathers and Sons” by Cat Stevens. Not only does the placement and usage of these songs induce groans, it kills the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll, the spirit the film so desperately hopes to project.

There is so much more wrong with this film. Characters are reduced to caricature: there’s the fat guy, the dumb guy, the mysterious quiet guy, the dirty hippie guy, etc. There are montages of young, beautiful Brits listening to the pirate station while dancing and working. The same girl is even shown multiple times peeing whilst tuned in. But worst of all Curtis and his merry band of pirate DJs conforms to what has happened to the beloved rock rebel spirit of the late ’60s by making a film that is safe, fuzzy and lacking danger.

by David Harris
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