Friday, December 4, 2009

Pirate Radio: Rock on!

Pirate Radio (2009) • View trailer for Pirate Radio
Four stars (out of five). Rating: R, for profanity, fleeting nudity and brief drug use
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 12.4.09
Buy DVD: Pirate Radio• Buy Blu-Ray: Pirate Radio [Blu-ray]

Richard Curtis apparently invades my thoughts.

The writer-turned-filmmaker responsible for co-creating BlackAdder and Mr. Bean, who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, and who placed his directorial debut (Love, Actually) on my list of all-time best holiday movies, has the magic touch with respect to what I find most enjoyable about cinema.
"The Count" (Philip Seymour Hoffman, with bottle) and Dave (Nick Frost,
right) enthusiastically participate in a round of verbal characes: a regular
evening activity that's about to turn very strange once the unseen "Thick Kevin"
starts giving the clues.

Sharp dialogue. Clever plotlines. Ensemble casts well laced with eccentric characters. And a wry, slightly arch tone that shows Curtis' unerring understanding of what Americans find amusing about the British ... while, at the same time (one assumes), similarly pleasing UK viewers.

John Cleese recognizes this technique as well, and he even discussed it during his recent appearance at the UC Davis Mondavi Center: The British know they're mildly stuffy and oddly constipated when it comes to art, food and simply enjoying life, which is why  as a nation  they so marvelously, scandalously bust loose every so often. And then, such desires temporarily quelled, they again retreat behind a bland mask of genteel conservatism.

All stuff and nonsense, of course. But our British cousins do so love to cultivate such an image.

Pirate Radio, only Curtis' second film as writer and director, is a delightful Robert Altman-esque riff on an actual cultural phenomenon that both cheered and scandalized England during the latter 1960s.

You may recall, on a side note, that some American criminal entrepreneurs skirted gambling and drinking restrictions during Prohibition by running casinos on ships anchored just outside jurisdictional limits. Well-heeled customers were ferried from shore to these well-appointed salons of sin, and law enforcement couldn't do much about it. For a time.

Well, believe it or not, England  land of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, not to mention scores of other seminal 1960s bands, and birth of the British wave of rock 'n' roll  did not cater, at the time, to its own young (or old and hip) music fans. Not a single legitimate British radio station played rock in the '60s; the music was, in effect, banned by silent decree from government-controlled BBC radio. The "old guard" fuddy-duddies in Parliament simply didn't allow it.

As a result, a few enterprising rebels anchored ships in the North Sea, beyond the range of government control, with the sole purpose of broadcasting "demon rock" to a nation hungry for its own emerging sound. And the obvious irony, of course, is that well over half the nation  young and old, men and women  tuned in to these stations, in effect silently breaking an unspoken law every time they turned on a radio.

Only in England, right?

Pirate Radio is a charming, deliberately exaggerated riff on this actual historical event, with one colorful tanker — dubbed "Radio Rock"  standing in for the small multitude of ships that actually served this noble function. The setting is 1966, and station owner Quentin (Bill Nighy, forever appearing as if he's one martini shy of a full-blown drunk) oversees an all-male "crew" of colorful eccentrics who broadcast 24/7, unofficially marching to the tune of the ex-pat American, "The Count" (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who lives to tweak the Establishment.

All men, that is, except "the lesbian ship's cook," Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), always introduced as such, who good-naturedly the affectionate gibes from "her boys."

Curtis draws from the cream of the British acting crop, and Radio Rock's station personnel easily will be recognized by fans of Brit-flicks:

• The overweight but somehow sexually cuddly Dave (Nick Frost), who can't be trusted with any visiting women;

• An idiosyncratic New Zealander dubbed Angus (Rhys Darby);

• The aptly named "Thick Kevin" (Tom Brooke), who never quite synchs with real life, and is likely to show up at a Christmas party in a bunny costume;

• The lovelorn Simon (Chris O'Dowd), who meets a romantic fate worse than death;

• The quiet, late-night specialist Mark (Tom Wisdom), who somehow captivates female listeners without saying anything;

• Bespectacled reporter "News John" (Will Adamsdale), whose bulletins rarely have much to do with significant world events; and

• A few more strays who pop up now and again, sometimes surprising even those who've occupied berths on Radio Rock for months.

One customarily lunatic dinner, for example, suddenly goes quiet as everybody stares across the long table, at a quiet, bearded fellow who we suddenly realize we've not seen before.

No surprise, then, when The Count breaks the silence to ask, "Who are you?" And thus we're introduced to Bob (Ralph Brown), who has the very early morning shift, and rarely leaves the stateroom where he rigorously listens to music at all other hours of the day.

The strangely stable dynamic of this wonderfully warped gang alters with the arrival of two newcomers: first Quentin's teenage godson, Carl (Tom Sturridge), recently booted from school for various minor infractions, and sent by his mother to somehow shape up and "become a man" in this idiosyncratic environment. Quentin is (naturally) delighted by Carl's rebellious nature, and we can't help wondering just how this young man is expected to "mature" at Radio Rock; his unsullied innocence seems just as vulnerable as sweet little Radar O'Reilly was, surrounded by all his hedonistic comrades in M.A.S.H.

We clock most of Radio Rock's subsequent activities through Carl's eyes; he becomes our entry point to these mad doings.

And because this is a Richard Curtis film, when Carl's wayward mother finally pops up for a brief visit, of course she's played by Emma Thompson, swanning about like a displaced member of the Royal Family.

The ship's second new employee is somewhat more troublesome: rock radio royalty Gavin (Rhys Ifans), a famed "mystic DJ" with a scandalously filthy patter recruited to boost advertising sponsorships. Gavin immediately challenges The Count's status as alpha dog, and we just know that the subsequent battle will be ... well, unusual.

Conflict surfaces back in London, in the form of the hilariously uptight Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh, a complete stitch), a government minister tasked with the assignment of silencing Radio Rock for good, and by any means possible. Dormandy is assisted by the improbably named Twatt (Jack Davenport), an enterprising "fixer" ordered to find  or invent  some legitimate legal means to eliminate these rock 'n' roll rebels.

As a villain, Dormandy is hopelessly out of his league. Curtis stacks the deck from the film's opening moments: a montage that explodes into multiple images that reveal all facets of British citizenry dancing, bopping, drinking, smoking, giggling, eavesdropping and generally delighting in every song that emanates from Radio Rock.

This joie de vivre fills every frame of this film; it's generated by the Radio Rock DJs and consumed, like essential foodstuffs, by the insatiably hungry public.

Which makes every scene with the dour and eternally vexed Dormandy that much funnier.

Things get pretty crazed by the third act, with modest subplots such as young love battling for screen time with the escalating antics of Gavin and The Count, not to mention Dormandy's insistent plotting and a real crisis. It'll make you breathless, and it obviously never actually happened this way, but who cares? The very nature and spirit of rock 'n' roll demand this sort of fanciful tomfoolery, and we can't help feeling that it probably should have gone down just like this.

Heck, even the closing credits are a thrill, with a montage of classic and modern album covers displayed against the lingering remnants of the film's simply amazing collection of vintage pop hits: the ultimate 1960s rock flashback.

It has been noted that Pirate Radio lacks the focus and carefully scripted interconnections that made Love, Actually so memorable, and that's a legitimate point.

Funny thing, though: I didn't mind in the slightest.

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