Universal // 2009 // 117 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ben Saylor (Retired) // April 5th, 2010
"How about it, then?"
With Love Actually occupying a cozy spot in the guilty pleasure section of my DVD collection, I was naturally interested in how writer-director Richard Curtis would choose to follow up. Unfortunately, the resulting work, Pirate Radio is a textbook case of the sophomore slump that is not likely to occupy any place in my DVD collection.
In 1966 Britain, pop and rock music is not broadcast on government radio. To get their musical fix, the youth of the UK turn instead to "pirate radio" stations broadcasting from ships anchored in international waters. Visiting one such station, Radio Rock, is Carl (Tom Sturridge), an ex-student who builds a strong rapport with the station's oddball assortment of personalities; whether it's hefty ladies' man Dr. Dave (Nick Frost, Hot Fuzz), the slow-on-the-uptake Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke) or brash American DJ The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Capote).
Meanwhile, back on dry land, Her Majesty's government, in the form of bureaucrat Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh, Wild Wild West) and his hatchet man Twatt (Jack Davenport, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), sets about finding a way to shut down the pirate radio stations forever.
Richard Curtis is a talented screenwriter with several fine works under his belt, including the Oscar-nominated Four Weddings and a Funeral. Despite my enjoyment of his films, I have to admit that as a writer Curtis (judging from what I've seen) has an unfortunate tendency towards episodic narratives. Given that he cut his teeth with television work like Blackadder and Mr. Bean, perhaps that's not surprising. Four Weddings and a Funeral is an example of how Curtis was able to make this style work through fresh, humorous situations along with likable, interesting characters. For his directorial debut, Love Actually, Curtis took the setups of at least 6 separate films and threw them all into one large, essentially plotless narrative; and although the film is pretty silly, there are enough funny/romantic/moving moments scattered throughout that the experience is worthwhile.
Pirate Radio, however, is a different animal. The only element driving the narrative is the government effort to shut down the stations. Otherwise, Pirate Radio lurches along as a series of comic bits involving the film's huge cast. Subplots come and go without leaving much of an impression. One particularly tired plot thread involves the awkward Carl's attempts at losing his virginity; another is a feud between The Count and bad boy DJ Gavin Kavanaugh (Rhys Ifans, Notting Hill) that resolves itself almost before we even realize it's begun. Incredibly, the film's original cut was even longer than the version released in America (and also had a worse title in The Boat That Rocked).
Little of the film's substantial-for-its-subject runtime of almost 2 hours is devoted to developing distinct characters, so there's a feeling of sameness to the people on the boat. Audience-surrogate Carl is a completely dull character who serves little purpose beyond introducing us to the crew of Radio Rock. Among the rest of this very talented cast, everyone does what they can with what they're given, but no one really emerges as a standout, with the possible exception of Ifans. Actors like Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace) and January Jones (Mad Men) are relegated to throwaway appearances that barely rise above cameos; whereas on the shore, Kenneth Branagh plays up his character's villainy so much that it becomes surprising that he did not grow a longer, twirlable mustache for the role.
Universal's DVD of Pirate Radio looks and sounds very good. The latter is particularly important, given the key role classic rock music plays in the film. For extras, there is a feature commentary with Curtis, producer Hilary Bevan Jones, along with actors Nick Frost and Chris O'Dowd (who plays DJ Simon Swafford). This is a very relaxed, informal discussion that is only intermittently interesting. It might have been helpful if Curtis and Jones had recorded a separate track, with Frost and O'Dowd joined by other actors for a cast commentary. The only other extra on the disc is an unsurprisingly extensive collection of deleted scenes. Curtis provides an introduction to the batch, as well as individual intros for most of the clips. The scenes, when played with Curtis' comments (which are sometimes better than the scenes themselves), amount to 57 minutes (!) of material, some of which is actually quite good (a word game the DJs play comes to mind), while others were rightly excised from the final product, like a sequence in which the Radio Rock crew sabotages a rival station. What's interesting (and rather telling) about these scenes as a whole is that, as Curtis himself points out, most of them could be swapped for scenes in the final cut, with little effect on the film itself.
For all its faults, something Pirate Radio gets right is the atmosphere. I'm not saying it's accurate to the period (not having lived during that time, I can't really say), but Curtis and co. have created a believable environment for their film. The sets used for the interior of the boat are minutely detailed and have a cozy, lived-in feel, and the film's strong camera coverage and editing make sure you get to know every nook and cranny. Additionally, the music of the film, while sometimes unsurprising, is more often than not appropriate for a given scene. The film's soundtrack contains tunes by Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Dusty Springfield, Skeeter Davis, The Who, The Easybeats, The Tremeloes, The Turtles and many more.
Too many characters are given too little to do in Pirate Radio, a scattershot film that is occasionally entertaining but wears out its welcome long before the end of its protracted runtime. This is worth a rental for anyone who likes rock 'n' roll movies or is interested in the subject matter; just don't set your expectations too high.
The disc is not guilty; the film is sentenced to [insert pirate cliché here].
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes