November 12, 2009

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Pirate Radio (R)
A group of Brits (and one Yank) keep the music playing even when the government tries to put a muzzle on their Rolling Stones and Dusty Springfield in Pirate Radio, a goofy little love letter to rock and roll, man, yeah!

Carl (Tom Sturridge), a boy in his older teen years, has messed up at school and has been sent by his mother (Emma Thompson, who is boozily charming) to visit his godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy), owner of Radio Rock, a pirate radio station broadcasting to Britain from a boat in the North Sea. If his mother’s purpose was for him to straighten up and fly right, she couldn’t have picked a less buckle-down, noses-on-grindstones place. The boat, inhabited by the producers, DJs and engineers operating the station, is a floating den of iniquity. The guys get high, get drunk and, when the girls are allowed to visit, enjoy other forms of debauchery. (For the most part, though, it’s no women allowed — a female cook is permitted only because she fancies the ladies.) Holding court among the DJs is The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He and the other rock-boys try to school Carl in the way of love, music and life as an outlaw of sorts — until suddenly the station really is on the outs with the law. Though we see several scenes of Britons from all walks of life enjoying the sounds of Radio Rock, the governmental fussbucket Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) decides that commercial radio is a threat to the country’s moral fiber, hissing and trilling his “R”s as he gleefully explains to his flunky how he plans to shut the station down. (And I’m just going to go ahead and not mention the flunky’s name, as it, in grand Groundlings British tradition, is giggle-inducingly dirty.)

Can a great soundtrack make up for a mediocre movie? Would I have been so dazzled by Garden State without its of-the-moment indie soundtrack? Do I remember The O.C. (a TV show, but the argument still works) fondly entirely because of the cool soundtracks I continue to play and not really at all because of the show I stopped watching in the second season? Would I have any affection at all for Pirate Radio if it weren’t for all the fun British Invasion music rolling off the screen, enveloping me like the smell of freshly baked cookies?

I’m not sure. Like soul-enchanting aromas or 1960s-era hallucinogens, Pirate Radio dazes and delights you with its fresh-again music and its young people geeking out on guitar riffs or soulful voices. And, yes, of course you can always find a boomer to give you the same loving monologues about Jimi or Mick, but here it comes without the “and now music is all crap” rant that such a discussion usually turns into.

Pirate Radio is giddy with love for its music and giddy over the idea that once brave DJs lived by this music, spending their lives out at sea with only the music and a weekly visit from a boat full of groupies to keep them going. The movie is a joyful celebration of commercial radio — or, at least, of a commercial radio that was, one where millions of people all listened to the same station and the same collection of strange personalities turning out a mix of deep album songs, hits and their own personal favorites. Pirate Radio might be to radio industry types what All the President’s Men is now to those of us in newspapers — a look back at the glory days.

And in all this warm love, you almost don’t notice that the story is fractured and kind of nonsensical. I’ve read that the American version of the film is shorter than the U.K. version — perhaps that version had more character development, more about the state of British radio (which, I gather from some wikiresearch, was mostly government controlled) and more texture given to Kenneth Branagh’s constipated-seeming bureaucrat. Here, he’s just the stock bad guy, the uptight dean trying to shut down the cool guys’ frat. And as loveable as the characters are they tend to feel slight and one-dimenstional — the sad-sack, the chubby lothario, the quirky boss.

Even the movie’s ending feels abrupt and half-baked — but before you get a chance to complain, there are the credits playing next to album covers from some of the most popular music of the last 40 years. Bruce, Madonna — is that Blondie? Ah, rock and roll saves the day again. C+

Rated R for language and some sexual content including brief nudity. Written and directed by Richard Curtis, Pirate Radio is two hours long and will open in the U.S. on Friday, Nov. 13. It is distributed by Focus Features.