Universal // 2009 // 117 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Daniel Kelly (Retired) // April 15th, 2010
Pirate DJs actually.
Richard Curtis follows up his ridiculously overrated directorial debut, Love Actually, with this messy story of a pirate radio station in the 1960s. It has its moments, but overall Pirate Radio is a mediocre film, more interested in creating promise than delivering upon it.
In the year 1966, rock music was not broadcast on government-approved radio; only pirate radio stations offered the chance to hear the pop/rock hits of the day. Pirate Radio follows the existence of one such ocean-based broadcasting outlet, the suitably titled "Radio Rock." The film's main character is a young man called Carl (Tom Sturridge, Vanity Fair), sent onboard by his mother following expulsion from school. During his time at "Radio Rock," Carl becomes friendly with its motley crew (Bill Nighy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, and Nick Frost amongst others), and has something resembling the time of his life. However, back on dry land, things aren't so groovy. Government minister Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh, Wallander) is trying to put an end to the whole idea of pirate radio, and with the help of the unfortunately named Mr. Twatt (Jack Davenport, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), the future of "Radio Rock" might be in danger.
As a writer I have no great qualms concerning Richard Curtis; he is after all the pen behind Blackadder, Mr. Bean, and Notting Hill. However, Pirate Radio confirms that he's not much of a director, something I felt was pretty obvious after 2003's Love Actually. Pirate Radio is a narrative nightmare, possibly the messiest film I've seen in the last year. That doesn't necessarily mean the picture is awful (because it isn't), but the storyline is too jumpy and unfocused for the film to ever be considered traditionally good. The performances are quite fun, and some individual scenes do work; but as whole, Pirate Radio is a complete dog's dinner.
The film was edited down for its US distribution; when it played in the UK (under the title The Boat That Rocked), Curtis's film ran nearly 20 minutes longer. However even in this shorter presentation, the production still feels drawn out and overcooked. The problem surely lies in the rambling and practically unintelligible screenplay, a script that boasts not so much a story but rather a series of unintentional vignettes. Love Actually played with the same idea (albeit a little more deliberately), but Curtis doesn't seem like a natural when handling this form of filmmaking. Every sequence in his movie feels inconsequential and unconnected with what's gone before, and the tying up of loose ends come the finish is laughable. Pirate Radio just doesn't work, the film lacks any proper emotional core and whilst it boasts about 10 different plot strands, it's impossible to take any of them seriously. The only thing Curtis has nailed is the giddy celebration of rock music; everything else is muddled and totally unconvincing.
The performances are good but the written characterization isn't. Pirate Radio has far too many human components; as a result, none of them ever feels like a properly rounded screen entity. Tom Sturridge is the closest thing Pirate Radio has to a beating heart, but unfortunately his performance is easily the weakest and wettest the film boasts. He feels stiff and unenthused in the part of Carl, rendering plot strands involving his virginity and the identity of his father flaccid. The supporting figures are definitely more entertaining, but none of them amounts to anything more than a walking cartoon. Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Capote) does his very best to imbue his American DJ with spirit and genuine emotion, but ultimately the script is too scattershot to allow it. Some minor sex appeal is provided by Talulah Riley (St. Trinian's) and Gemma Arterton (Clash of the Titans), but both are basically providing extended cameos. On the other hand, Kenneth Branagh is deliciously amusing as the villainous Dormandy; it's an over the top performance, but one skillfully weighted for maximum comic effect.
Pirate Radio is only occasionally funny; much of the humor misses the mark. Curtis utilizes obvious slapstick, partial male nudity, and crude bonding stories for most of his gags, leaving his trademark wit only intermittently unsheathed. Pirate Radio has several moments of subtle comic brilliance at its disposal (most featuring Branagh), but too often the project is happy to let vulgar sex references carry the momentum. Jokes about penis size, diarrhea, and foxy mothers are all well and good, but they have to be applied with wit and balance, something Curtis rarely bothers with in Pirate Radio. The film is also emotionally cold; audiences are unlikely to connect with any of the central figures, meaning that the movie mostly fails as both a dramatic and comedic experience.
Curtis could never be accused of being a visual filmmaker, and Pirate Radio ensures such a legacy remains intact. The film has a very routine look, and lacks any real directorial flair. Thanks to the wealth of fantastic pop records provided by the era, the soundtrack is terrifically enjoyable, but I'd like to think that was a given from the moment the product was conceived. The Blu-Ray transfer is solid; the picture is crisp and boasts a respectable level of detail. Blu-Ray fans might find the quality a bit softer than a few other recent Universal offerings, but overall this is a satisfactorily vibrant video presentation. The soundtrack is nicely handled thanks to a clear audio mix, bringing wonderful oomph to the film's fantastic soundtrack. The extras package isn't bad. A frothy commentary is provided by Curtis and a few of his cast members, who relive the filmmaking experience with an agreeable degree of vigor and energy. The track lacks focus just as much as the actual movie, but on the whole it's definitely easier viewing. A selection of featurettes are included (running to a combined total of about 20 minutes), and these do a decent job of filling in a few holes left unattended by the commentary. Finally, a mighty hoard of deleted scenes are also on offer (over an hour!), but it's hard to see any of them helping or improving the film. That said, there are some genuinely funny moments, particularly with Branagh. Still, the film is bloated enough as it is, these sequences are best left on the cutting room floor.
I probably liked Pirate Radio slightly more than Love Actually, but it's still an infuriatingly flawed cinematic experience. This disc is commendable enough, but the movie itself is probably not worth two hours of your life. Better to let this one sail right past you.
These scurvy DJ's can spend some time in Pirate jail.
Review content copyright © 2010 Daniel Kelly; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 117 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes