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Movie Review: Pirate Radio

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Who knows what was in the minds of the marketing department when they decided to change the name of the UK hit The Boat That Rocked to its current moniker of Pirate Radio?

Perhaps to remind American audiences that Bill Nighy, the brilliant British actor was the squid-faced Davy Jones in the popular Johnny Depp film series? Or maybe because those Somali pirates are just so darn omnipresent these days?

Regardless of its title, Pirate Radio remains a film so eager to please it stops just short of serving tea and crumpets to its audience. Writer/director Richard Curtis is perhaps known more for his more romantic cinematic exports, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love, Actually. Having purged those saccharine romantic tendencies from his system, he settles comfortably in nostalgic mode to offer what is perhaps his best screen work to date. Radio offers a venerable treasure chest of across-the-pond talent, from Nighy as the boat's paternal Quentin, to Kenneth Branagh comfortably buttoning up to play a by-the-numbers politician, to the genial Nick Frost (of Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead fame).

Set in the swinging '60s, Pirate Radio is given its narrative fuse with Carl (played by Tom Sturridge), a young man sent to spend time with his godfather Quentin after being expelled from school. It's a rather flimsy premise, as one look at Quentin and his “Rock Radio” ship would clue a parent in that it might not be the best facility for rewarding responsible behavior.

For on board is an assemblage of floating radio castaways, led by raucous American DJ The Count (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who looks as though he's having more fun on screen than he's had in years), inexplicable ladies man Dave (played by Frost), and the simple Simon (played by Chris O'Dowd). Also adrift on the airwaves is Angus (played by Flight of the Conchords' Rhys Darby, basically reprising that role), Midnight Mark (played by Tom Wisdom), the libidinous transplant Gavin (played by Rhys Ifans), and the elusive, partially fried Smooth Bob (played by Ralph Brown).

It's a big boat, so there are several other crew members aboard, as well as a divergent storyline led by a hilariously priggish Branagh as Sir Alistair Dormandy, who is attempting to shut down operations. (The role is apparently a parody of British Postmaster General Tony Benn, who launched a program to cut off off-shore radio.)

The film is a fictional recreation of actual events concerning radio in the UK in the 1960s, in which it was illegal to operate a commercial station (it was ultimately allowed in 1973). A number of fun-loving music fans took to the seas to transmit the latest hits in international waters, much to the delight of the country's youth. But everything that occurs on the boat is from the mind of its writer/director Curtis, whose rose-tinted nostalgia is perfectly punctuated by music from The Kinks, The Turtles, The Who, The Troggs, The Moody Blues, The Rolling Stones, and countless others. He has also honed his skills as a director, transitioning fluidly between on the boat's pandemonium and the on-shore efforts to silence it.

Pirate Radio's genial tone, infectious soundtrack, and general message of finding a family keep it tuned in to its audience. For in this floating island of misfit DJs, despite their cramped quarters, they all find room to let each of their voices be heard.

About Rob Rector

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