Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Pirate Radio

"Rockin' the Boat"

The legend of "Radio Caroline" (and similar ships of the line) is one of the great stories of broadcast rebellion...and opportunism; during "The British Invasion" of Rock n' Roll the government-run radio stations (the BBC) limited the amount of "pop" to a minimum of hours. Seeing a demand among the populace for more, a small band of entrepreneurial renegades hired a ship, built a powerful transmitter on it and began defiantly broadcasting over the Island with rock n' roll—advertising-supported rock n' roll. Other ships did the same. At one point, another pirate operation, Radio City, commandeered one of Britain's off-shore defense forts from World War II and began rocking out.

"Pirate Radio" (released April in Britain as "The Boat That Rocked") is the latest in a string of 2009 releases that take the premise of a true story and make an easily digested, formula film out of it. The movie and its producers would have you believe the British ministry felt a moral imperative to stamp out pop music, the very thing that was filling the government coffers with tax dollars, and the radio-pirates were acting in a fit of rebellion and righteous indignation at their musical muses being silenced. They were on a Mission to bring the Music to the People.


They wanted to make money. It was a bunch of guys who saw an opportunity to make it in a market that wasn't having its needs met. So, they created illegal, unlicensed operations that played 24 hour rock in international waters. Nothing succeeds like excess. And "The Beeb," run by the country's Post Office, didn't like the pirates because they were competitors, siphoning funds that they believed to be rightfully theirs. The word "pirate" isn't used lightly. But money is not sexy enough subject matter when dealing with rock music, despite that you can't have one without the other, positively or negatively.* And movies about turf wars work best where there's actual turf.

I'll beg forgiveness on this for the writer-director is Richard Curtis, who has managed to fill his movies with sharp utterances that we find ourselves wishing we were smart enough to make as comebacks. He says things better than we mortals do, and luckily he chooses to caper in the comic realm, having started as a writer on ""The Black Adder"," and ""Mr. Bean"," and graduated with such rom-com's as "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill," and "Love Actually"—his directing debut.**

Stylistically, the thing is a mess. A fast multi-screened 60's-styled opening that operates like some flipping PowerPoint nightmare explains the back story fast and loose, and from there pin-points a fictional ship, "Radio Rock," operated by Oliver (Bill Nighy, who does a fine balancing act of appearing totally stoned while being exceedingly "British"), and a crew of good-for-nothing-but-jamming disk jockeys, led by a token American "The Count" (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his nemesis, the beloved rake Gavin (Rhys Ifans), other jocks divided between "characters" and burn-outs and a just-arrived newbie named Carl (Tom Sturridge) who serves as the audience's surrogate for reams of exposition. This ship of fools maintains a fixed position in the North Atlantic, frustrating the efforts of one particular minister, Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh, just as twittish as he can be) and his assistant...er...Twatt (Jack Davenport) to bring them down by any means necessary. It sets up a neat heroes and villains scenario that completely messes up the history, but tries to gin up some advocacy towards the wackos broadcasting without a license to shrill.

The main story is the government versus pirates scenario where the government is a tidy, repressed bunch of stick-uppers and
the disc jockeys are slobby loose cannons on deck. Carl's story of being sent to the ship, for reasons unknown, by his Mum (Emma Thompson***) after he's been expelled, and his subsequent attempts to de-virginize himself is second in priority (Gemma Arterton and Talulah Riley are the "bits of crumpet"—if I can use the period vernacular—employed in the attempt), and its filled out with petty bickering on-board ship and various personal crises among the disc jockeys. Hi-jinks on the high seas.

That all sounds perfectly dreadful in summation, but Curtis is deft in the details, providing a lot of genuinely earned laughs, and pulling off some nice little moments—one example being a post-heart-crushing of Carl, where he sits dejected in the ship's meeting room, where he's soon joined by fellow crew who try to boost his spirits with chocolate and crisps. When he has none of it, they begin to eat the cookies and drink the drink until he finally pulls his head out and nibbles with them. The unspoken lesson: you have to shoot while the geese are flying, chappie. That it's done without words and with "Bean-ish" comic timing makes it good writing and good film.

But, if Curtis and crew deigned not to complicate the story particulars, it's assured that they wouldn't take the film into uncharted dramatic waters, so they turn it into a "crisis"
where "the people" triumph, conflicts are washed away, everybody gets paired up and Rock n' Roll will never die.

And artists get a penny per disc sold, if they're lucky.

The film did poorly in its Anglicized form, where it was shown at a length of 140 minutes, which is excessive for any comedy. For the titularly changed "States" version, twenty minutes were cut, but it doesn't solve a basic problem. Today's audiences may not have the same flavor of love of rock music as director Curtis does. The market is super-saturated with it on all levels, and a people's version of piracy, through peer to peer networks, has exposed what was thought of as devotion as merely acquisitiveness. How much love can you have for an artist's work if you're perfectly happy to rip him off?
**** This is the market-place the film is preaching to and trying to reach.

So enough talk of saving rock music to sell the movie. It's a sham. What is there is genuine laugh out-loud moments, a persistent air of tart larkiness several cuts above your standard "Carry On" movie and a killer soundtrack of innocent-sounding 60's standards. It's fun.

"Pirate Radio" is a very cheap bargain-price Matinee.

* Unless you download your favorite artists' music illegally, of course. Then they get screwed. Ain't devotion grand?

** He also co-wrote the two "Bridget Jones' Diary" movies and for "The Vicar of Dibney"

*** Thompson does a lovingly vapid 60's hipster, with cigarette holder, moonish sun-glasses, and Mary Quant checkered coat, reminding one of Vanessa Redgrave in her "spacey" days. And I guess you can't do a 60's movie without putting January Jones in it, so she's there, too. Here's a thought: Most of the women in the film, save the on-board lesbian who takes care of "the boys," are duplicitous. What's up with that?

**** And, not to belabor the point (BUT!) radio stations have a blanket agreement with music publishers (BMI and ASCAP, say) to pay the artists for the music played. The Pirate stations were under no obligation to do so, and probably didn't. So much for promoting rock.

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