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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Random Films I Liked: Pirate Radio

Introducing a new post that I hope will occur frequently on the these pages: Random Films I Liked. And starting off it is Pirate Radio, aka The Boat That Rocked, a period comedy about an illegal radio station in the North Sea in the 1960s.

A film that begins with Phillip Seymour Hoffman yelling into the airwaves about the power of rock and roll to the tunes of The Kinks and ends with the words "That's how you do it, innit?" cannot really go wrong.

It's far from perfect, the frame isn't bit enough to carry the cast of eccentric characters, and it doesn't take itself too seriously, but it's a lovely little film - I say little because it doesn't carry an overbearing Hollywood tag and resonates with tinges of indie classics like Almost Famous and Across the Universe - that portrays the mayhem of rock music and what it went through in that era.

The film, shot almost entirely on a ramshackle oil tanker, is set against the backdrop of the whole sex, drugs and rock n roll theme and the battle the stiff-upper-lip BBC waged against it. In the 1960s the BBC had a monopoly on radio services in the UK, and there were but two hours of rock and roll music played a week. As a result, the high demand for rock and the low supply led to the emergence of pirate radio.

Refusing to bow down is the most popular pirate radio station, and iconic ship anchored in the North Sea, with a motley crew of DJs and support staff. Think of the crew from The Life Aquatic drinking, smoking and playing classic rock hits on the radio from the middle of the ocean, with conjugal visits from ecstatic groupies and teenyboppers.

The kid trying to find himself in his teens, while searching for his father, and his sexual awakening track was a bit cliched and forced, and one that often turns your attention away from the bigger issue of the law trying to clamp down on the radio station via its Marine Offense Act (the naming of a government functionary Twatt was apt). But the acting and Curtis' ability to pen witty one-liners and create funny situations keeps you entertained. The montages range from surreal to slapstick to rowdy to existentialist, but all bind the film together.

Sure, there are times when the symbolism and metaphors pore over almost as frequently as the terrific blasts of classic Brit rock from the Beatles and the Stones to Dusty Springfield and David Bowie, and the boat does creak from character overload, but director Richard Curtis (Love Actually) succeeds - for the second time - in steering the film's ship through choppy waters. Aiding his vision is a terrific ensemble cast. I mean seriously, can you go wrong with Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson? Throw in a top-notch supporting cast - props to whoever decided to get Flight of the Chonchords' Rhys Darby on board - and a great soundtrack and you can't go wrong.

Night, Frost and Ifans get the bulk of the classic dialogue, but everyone leaves an impact, even if they don't all get ample screen time. Playing The Count, an American DJ, Hoffman gets to let his hair down after Doubt and, as the who-gives-a-crap outsider in a sea of "Limy bastards", gets to lift the film's finger up to establishment theme.

Critics may argue that Curtis could have pushed harder to delve into the phenomenon that was British radio in the mid-60s, and rightly so, but it was probably his choice to stick to a genre he's comfortable in. The point is not to push the envelope too much, and in a way that makes this a watered down final product. No pun intended, as you'll see in the final scene.

The film's message is that its just about having fun. As Ifans' cool cat DJ Gavin would say, purring into his microphone: "Hit it!"

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