|Philip Seymour Hoffman||The Count|
|Kenneth Branagh||Sir Alistair Dormandy|
|Directed by||Richard Curtis|
In 1966, a musical iron curtain lay across Britain. British rock was exploding: the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who, the Animals, the Yardbirds, Pink Floyd, Cream, the Zombies, the Spencer Davis Group, Manfred Mann, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, the Hollies, and literally dozens of other homegrown groups and artists were rocking the airwaves all across the musical world. But you wouldn't have known it listening to British radio. The BBC, with its broadcast monopoly, grudgingly rationed its UK listeners to less than two hours of pop music a week.
Into the breach stepped Radio Rock, a sort of Radio Free Britain broadcasting rock 'n' roll 24/7 from a ship moored in international waters off the coast of England. This, at least, is the way it's told in Pirate Radio, Richard Curtis's fictionalized take on the guerilla stations like Radio Caroline that made a commercial end-run around the restrictions of government-run broadcasting in Britain. Curtis's movie is loosely based on the historical truths of the time, but it isn't meant as a documentary, or even a docucomedy. It's just a hell of a lot of fun.
That fun is pretty evenly distributed between the rowdy cast of characters and the film's lovingly-compiled soundtrack of period British and American rock classics. Not all those classics, by the way, are from the right period, but since the movie makes no pretense at being accurate about anything when it can have a better time by doing something else, who's counting?
We enter the story along with Carl (Tom Sturridge), a clean-cut young delinquent who has been expelled from school for smoking, and is dispatched by his mother (a glamorous, free-spirited Emma Thompson) for a corrective season at sea in the care of his godfather, Quentin, the owner and operator of Radio Rock. Quentin is played by the miraculous Bill Nighy (Love, Actually), who can turn the simplest line or gesture into a hilarious compound fracture. "So your mum sent you here in the hope that a little bracing sea air would sort you out?" Quentin murmurs. "Spectacular mistake."
The floating radio station is manned by a motley crew of DJs headed by scruffy American platter-spinner The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who as we meet him is preparing to drop the first f-bomb on the air. The Count is king of the pirate airwaves until his sway is challenged by the return to the ship of Gavin (Rhys Ifans), a legendary smooth-talking dandy who had left to seek his fortune in America. Other hands include Dave (Nick Frost of Shaun of the Dead), a chubby lady-killer; an intern known as Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke); the sweet sad sack Simon (Chris O'Dowd), unlucky in love and marriage; Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), the ship's cook and lone resident female, an exception to the all-male rule by virtue of being a lesbian; and sundry others, including silent Bob (Ralph Brown), the hirsute recluse who helms the wee hours of the morning show and has been on board over half a year before anyone notices him.
Stringing together the random, riotous bits that make up life on the high seas are cutaways to Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), the Minister of Her Majesty's Government charged with pulling the plug on pirate radio. To complain, as some critics have done, that Sir Alistair is a cartoonish villain is to be as absurd and humorless as Sir Alistair himself. If you don't think he's funny, you certainly won't like his right hand man, Twatt (Jack Davenport of Pirates of the Caribbean). Together these meanies plot the demise of Radio Rock, and the sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll it represents.
The musical selections are obviously culled from the collection of writer-director Curtis, and even allowing for inevitable differences in taste (the Turtles and Herb Alpert rub musical elbows with the Who, the Kinks, and Otis Redding,) they make a terrific soundtrack. Due to licensing difficulties, there's nothing from the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. The songs do tend toward the literal as they accompany the action. A couple of female characters whose visits liven up life on board are backed by namesake tunes: Leonard Cohen's "So Long, Marianne" plays for a heartbreaker named Marianne (Talulah Riley), and the Turtles' "Elenore" ushers in and out the eponymous character played by Mad Men's January Jones.
Under the name The Boat that Rocked, the movie sank quietly in England amid criticism that it was too broad and too long. Trimmed by more than a quarter of an hour to a lean 115 minutes and retitled, it works like a charm on this side of the pond. I'd make a quibble here and there – in his end titles, for instance, Curtis celebrates "40 years of rock 'n' roll," inexplicably writing off the ten years that preceded and formed the genre with seminal greats like Chuck Berry and Little Richard whom the Brits began by imitating.
But Curtis, who wrote the screenplays of movies like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill, before writing and directing the sublimely funny Love, Actually, knows how to make you laugh, and that's what you'll do throughout this picture, tapping your toes to the music all the while. It's as good a time as you can have in a public place.
© Text 2009 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be