Sunday Morning Movies: Pirate Radio (aka The Boat That Rocked)

December 13, 2010

Almost ten years ago, some friends and I began a tradition we called the Sunday Morning Movie.  The idea was to wake up, roll out of bed, and drive down to Blockbuster first thing (we didn’t wake up very early) and rent the biggest new release of the week that didn’t look very good or that we had no real desire to see.  This was partly to justify watching crap films that I didn’t want to admit that I actually did want to see (cool special effects actioners or soppy rom-coms, for instance) and partly because we thought it might be worth keeping up with popular culture. The hope was to find a decent little gem amongst the dreck, and to our surprise there were quite a few. When I moved overseas I continued this tradition with new friends, though at some point it got out of hand.  I found myself watching three terrible movies in one afternoon, and at some point the number of bad movies I was watching overtook the number of good ones.  That, combined with falling interest and a number of other factors led to the discontinuation of the program, though it was revived from to time over the intervening years.  As I find myself back in the US with nothing else to do on a Sunday, I’ve decided to resurrect the practice when feasible.  Due to money concerns, you might notice that the films tend to be whatever happened to be on HBO, so if the rule of finding recent films doesn’t quite fit anymore, I hope the spirit of the venture remains in tact.

I’ve always felt that Richard Curtis’ Love Actually was the result of his conception of about ten vague romantic comedy stories that he couldn’t be bothered to flesh out.  By combining them into one film of loosely-connected stories he bypassed all the trouble of creating convincing, three-dimensional characters to get to the basics of the filmed concept of love.  Despite it really being a series of sketches, it largely works because of the impressive array of actors assembled who managed to infuse their caricatures with some degree of recognizable humanity.  In some cases, even the stories gave off the faint whiff of emotional honesty that came very close to what some might consider “moving”.  Pirate Radio moves Curtis out of his rom-com safe zone into more straightforward comedy, and though it still features a large ensemble of characters, they’re all (literally) in the same boat.

Released in the UK as The Boat That Rocked to commercial and critical disappointment, the unwieldy two hour and twenty minute running time (obviously far too long to support a story this slight) was edited down for the US to a still-too-long two hours, and that is the version I’ll be writing about here.  As overstuffed as the film is, I can imagine that a longer running time, while not improving the quality, might have made it more watchable.  In the truncated version, the abrupt cutting from story to story is too disorientating to ignore.  Even with the slightness of the material, I’d rather spend some time in the world than be pushed through it at such a pace where absolutely nothing means anything.

The audience’s “in” to the world of 1960s British Pirate Radio is Carl (Tom Sturridge), a recently expelled teenager sent to stay with his godfather Quentin (the always reliable Bill Nighy) who owns Radio Rock, a pirate station that broadcasts from a boat in the North Sea.  From there he meets the colourful cadre of disc jockeys and producers, played by the cast of every British TV sitcom of the past 10 years.  They party and listen to music, and every now and again attractive women to the shore get shipped out to them for a weekend of groupie sex.  We’re meant to believe these are fun-loving 60s folk who love to party and rebel, but there’s a distinct misogynistic tone to the venture that is never commented upon or explored.  While Carl is living out his flimsy coming-of-age story (the closest thing to a narrative arc the film has), on land the stiff, totally square UK government is occasionally coming up with ways to shut the station down.  The task force is headed by Kenneth Branaugh, who phones in a less-than one-dimensional performance as an angry civil servant who sees rock as pornography.  Meanwhile, we’re told over and over again, 23 million listeners tune in every day, and the film is interspersed with groups of nurses, teenagers, and workers who huddle around the radio to dance, laugh, and even cry because What These People Are Doing Is Important.  They’re the kind of awkward audience reactions that wouldn’t be out of place in a disaster movie, where horrified audiences around the globe react shallowly and stupidly to whatever horror the news is reporting on.  We never understand why the music and the off-colour, rebellious DJs mean so much to them, because it’s only important that we know that they do.

A series of events happen over the course of the year, and since none of these sub-sitcom set pieces have any relation to each other, or really deepen any of the broad characters that populate the film, one gets the distinct feeling that despite everything that is going on, nothing is actually happening.  It’s as though Curtis came up with a series of unfunny scenes, mostly involving piggish sex comedy or somebody being incredibly thick (Carl’s roommate is called Kevin Thick, because he’s so outlandishly stupid), but didn’t know how to connect them so he used the pirate radio stations of the 60s to throw in some glamorously funky costumes and classic, audience-friendly tunes.  There are minor betrayals on board, but they’re forgiven by the next scene and nobody seems to change at all from the experience.  This really is the slightest film I’ve seen in a long while, even as a tries to seem important with its creaky Dunkirk finale.  Beyond the painfully unfunny humour, the biggest problem might be having Carl at the center of all the shenanigans.  He acts as the anchor for the film, but not because he grounds the piece but rather because he’s wet and stuck in the mud.  Compare him to Patrick Fugit’s character in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, where we genuinely get the feeling we’re seeing this world of rock and roll from the kid’s perspective and we understand what it and the coming-of-age story really means.  Carl is used to introduce everyone and then largely abandoned to his own little stories that have little bearing on most of the stories we’re shown.  Curtis as the director doesn’t help matters much.  The costumes are colourful and the girls are pretty, but the visual style of the whole doesn’t go much beyond “scenes on the boat are bright and the camera handheld, because it is rebellious, loose, and fun while scenes on shore with the government are cold, grey, and still, because they are boring and lame.”

Perhaps the worst thing about Pirate Radio is that when it ended, I had no interest in listening to any of the classic 60s rock that the whole movie was supposedly about.  I remember leaving the cinema after seeing Richard Linklater’s wonderful School of Rock and immediately blasting The Clash on my iPod before heading to the record store to fill the gaps in my AC/DC collection.  That film was infused with the spirit and excitement of rock music, and the infectious love by the makers spread from the screen to the audience like a virus.  A friend remarked that after the aforementioned Almost Famous, you wanted to go out and listen to every record from the 70s, which is a doubly impressive feat considering mid-70s rock is one of the least exciting and inventive times in pop music history.  Those films were, to varying degrees, good, but the quality of the work doesn’t necessarily affect the enthusiasm for the subject matter.  Despite how terrible it is, after Gone in 60 Seconds, I left the cinema absolutely desperate to drive Shelby GT, and drive it fastPirate Radio has none of the attributes those films had, instead it relies on recognizable, milquetoast classic hits without providing sufficient context for their importance to the period or for recontexutalizing the now-standards to make them exciting again.  The film ends with post-script title cards that cornily and condescendingly state that rock music has thrived in the forty years since the shut down of the pirate radio stations.  It then proceeds to display album covers from the 60s to the present day, from U2 to Taylor Swift to Nirvana. It’s a cheap and laughable attempt to infuse the story with some sense of cultural history, made no better by the boringly (and suspiciously Rolling Stone magazine-esque) canonical ‘great albums’ that were chosen by someone middle-aged who stopped caring about music decades ago.  Pirate Radio is a film about rebels that is not in the least bit rebellious, and it is film about music that is not the least bit musical.  It’s the bad end of pop radio, like a Maroon 5 song that is so bland it is actually offensive.

-M

 

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