Excuse the heavy handed clichés in this review, I found it an impossibility to avoid as Pirate Radio has a nasty case of the cliche -not that this is a criticism. The key to enjoying Pirate Radio is to take it for what it is and not to expect anything more. This is an all boys club rock n’ roll romp on the high seas (or the North Sea in this case) reminiscent of the boarding school genre (women are on the periphery, either they’re lesbians who cook and clean or they’re the weekend booty call). Great superficial good times (this cannot be stressed enough) don’t dive too deep and you’ll enjoy the ride.
Notably, Pirate Radio was released in the UK as The Boat that Rocked, but apparently North American audiences are too darn daft to understand boats and rocking – or maybe the Brits think that we (or at least our friends to the south) fancy ourselves bandits or something of the more unscrupulous nature.
The film is based ever so loosely on British stations that tread in the waters between illegal and legal in the 1960s broadcasting rock n’roll to the UK citizens, whilst the BBC maintained a stiff upper lip refusing to give air time to pop and rock and other such debaucherous sounds. Writer/director Richard Curtis (of the Four weddings and a Funeral/Love Actually) is responsible for bringing us this light fm version of British pop culture history. As always, Curtis delivers a neat and tidy package, stylistically slick and hits all the right notes on the saccharine scale.
Dare I say this is every nerdy music loving boy’s wet dream; the film could be cast from any number of campus community radio stations. The characters are your standard archetypes, but I think this is done with self awareness. How could it not be? Most notably we have Phillip Seymour Hoffman basically reprising Lester Bangs from Almost Famous, Rhys Darby aka Murray of Flight of Conchords,is playing well - Murrary, Bill Nighy as the owner/captain could have with a few minor wardrobe changes stepped off the set of Love Actually and lastly Kenneth Brannaugh plays the evil BBC dude channeling his best comical take on Adolf Hitler, tiny moustache and all.
Floating just below the surface (I can't help myself!) is the subplot of Young Carl (Thom Sturridge) who is sent to stay on his Godfather's boat (or is he really his father?) to try and stay out of trouble (ha!) by his aging socialite mother. As Carl comes of age, so does pirate radio. No longer able to muck around both are forced to face realities of growing up, or going legal. Not exactly subtle, but that's not Richard Curtis’ style. Rock n’ Roll will always emerge victorious; John Peel somehow managed to find an audience on the BBC post his pirate radio run.
As far as music influenced coming of age films Almost Famous this is not and certainly not Pump up the Volume. But if you’re in the mood for escape into the known, check out Pirate Radio.
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