Rock the boat, baby

Phillip Seymour Hoffman shows us how to remember rock ’n’ roll radio



The '60s were a gas, and if you weren't there, damn, did you miss a great party. That's the only real theme of Richard Curtis' jubilantly fluffy trip down memory lane, a goofy delight that chronicles the rise and fall of the fictional "Radio Rock," and it's a hell of a lot of fun until the third act, when the boat and the movie spring a leak.

Unlike in the freewheeling USA where DJs were kings, the stodgy BBC in England controlled the airwaves, and said "no way" to the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, etc. In defiance, radio pirates rose, often broadcasting from ships anchored just off the British coast, and just beyond the reach of the law. These rock 'n' roll rebels are personified here as a jovial bunch of hedonistic preachers, gleefully spreading the rock 'n' roll gospel to anyone in earshot of their converted World War II-era minesweeper. Turns out a hell of a lot of ears tuned in and turned on, turning the jocks into underground icons, none bigger than "The Count" (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a leather-jacketed prophet on a mission to cut through red-tape bullshit and let the good times roll — at max volume. The other DJs include such funnyman character actors as Nick Frost and Rhys Darby, and their groovy boss Bill Nighy, in full-on mellow mode. Kenneth Branagh is the starched-shirted, mustache-twirling bureaucrat charged with taking these punks down, and he relishes every nanosecond of it.

Radio Rock is a hybrid of real-life seafaring stations like Radio Caroline and Wonder Radio London, and the movie seems to have been partially adapted from Canadian-born UK DJ Tom Lodge's memoir The Boat That Rocked, which was the movie's original, punchier title. As in other musical revolution movies such as Good Morning Vietnam and Pump Up the Volume, Pirate Radio tries bravely to visualize the excitement of rock radio, meaning a lot of spinning camerawork and quick cuts of actors posing in time to the music. Fortunately it's great music, with an all-killer-no-filler soundtrack featuring the Kinks, the Small Faces, the Beach Boys and dozens more.
When not rocking, the guys spend downtime stealing each other's girlfriends. Mad Men honey January Jones pops aboard as a blond goddess whose romantic fickleness causes a major macho showdown. A gamine lovely named Marianne (Talulah Riley) pops in, if only so we can hear Leonard Cohen's great tune of the same name when she breaks the new guy's heart.

None of this adds up to much, but Curtis (Love Actually) seems content merely tapping the nostalgia vein dry. Baby boomers will continue to pat themselves on the back as long as they have limbs, and rightly so, as they taught the world to jam. Yet for all their imagination and soul, the boomers were pretty shitty businessmen, a lot of their best ideas were fleeting or had already sunk, and these days an iPod can take you farther than all the rusty old ships at sea.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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