Film Reviews

Sinking Ship

Seven months after its theatrical release in the UK and two months after its DVD debut there, Pirate Radio washes ashore in U.S. theaters with a different title (it was formerly known as The Boat That Rocked) and most of its better bits excised. Writer-director Richard Curtis, paying homage to the shaggy, renegade disc jockeys spinning rock and roll from ships anchored in the North Sea of England in the mid-1960s, acknowledges as much on the deleted-scenes portion of the DVD, which runs almost a full hour. One could start a rather debilitating drinking game based upon the number of times he says "cutting this" or "trimming that" broke his heart.

Among the cutting-room-floor moments not in either version, sadly: an homage to the Beatles, delivered by Philip Seymour Hoffman (as the Yank DJ called The Count) in front of Abbey Road studios; a flashback involving Rhys Ifans dancing with another man in a South American bar to the Rolling Stones' "Get Off My Cloud"; late-night sabotage conducted aboard a competitor's vessel, a segment that runs almost the length of a sitcom episode; and a wrenching scene in which a heartbroken and betrayed DJ named Simon (played by Chris O'Dowd) lip-synchs the entirety of Lorraine Ellison's pleading soul gem "Stay With Me (Baby)." Which is to say nothing of the snips made before the film was shipped here from England and watered down further still (sorry, Yanks, but bid farewell to the scene in which dozens of naked women restage the Jimi Hendrix Experience's Electric Ladyland cover).

I mention the outtakes and alterations only by way of explaining why, after watching the DVD, Pirate Radio feels so slight in its current incarnation. Shorn of the scenes that actually put meat on its characters' frail bones, the resulting product is vaguely cute and wholly insubstantial, little more than a randomly assembled hodgepodge of scenes crammed in and yanked out that amount to yet another movie about rebellious young men sticking it to The Grumpy Old Man — this time, with a tacked-on Titanic climax.

The sinking ship here is named Radio Rock, so modeled after the real-life Radio Caroline, which sent ashore a nonstop soundtrack of Kinks, Stones, Otis Redding, Beach Boys, Box Tops, the Troggs and the Who — all the music being ignored by state-sponsored radio, which initially found rock and roll a noxious tonic during the mid-1960s. In Curtis's tame version of events, the music reaches cutesy teenyboppers who secretly share a bottle of wine (oh, my!) and a single cigarette (oh, no!) by the transistor's dim glow. (Oh, and no Beatles — in 1966, no less. Damned licensing rights.) Still, it's the music that propels the film forward — one golden oldie after another after another, a Big Chill on the high seas.

Curtis has decked out his ship with a cozy set (a sprawl of leather couches, mahogany desks and beds for everyone!) and stockpiled it with actors whose research stopped and started with a screening of Good Morning, Vietnam. There's Hoffman, doing his bang-up Lester Bangs again as he squares off against Ifans's impossibly hep Gavin. There's Flight of the Conchords' manager Murray, Rhys Darby, yet again the butt of a joke he only thinks he gets. And there's Nick Frost, showing off far too much of his hot fuzz in a bit of bedroom farce so wildly original it feels like an outtake from a randy episode of Three's Company. To the mix, sprinkle in the dandy station owner (Bill Nighy, skinny legs and all), the mop-topped boy exiled by his mommy (Tom Sturridge), the creepy Cat Stevens look-alike who spins early-morning music and comes and goes like a ghost (Ralph Brown), the leather-panted monosyllabic sex god (Tom Wisdom) and a few women who stick around just long enough to make the walk of shame down the gangplank (among them Mad Men's January Jones, who can't even muster the effort to look disinterested).

The episodes aboard the boat are occasionally interrupted by the government henchmen who intend to muzzle the outlaw broadcasters, and shake their clammy fists at "the drug-takers, lawbreakers and bottom-breaking fornicators." The pair consists of a starched-collared, toothbrush-mustached bureaucrat named Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) and his aide-de-camp, the officious Mr. Twatt (Jack Davenport), so named because the mere word clearly gives Curtis a fit of the giggles. Hence, its copious use as a punch line in the absence of actual cleverness.

But what does that Twatt find so offensive anyway? The intended debauchery is diluted; the decadence, tamed. Here are more than a dozen men charged only with playing rock and roll and talking dirty to Mother England in shifts, and they kill their time by drinking a few beers, sipping some tea and engaging in a little banal truth-or-dare. The sex is polite, entirely beneath the sheets or off-screen. There's not a whiff of dope on the ship, just the offhand talk of spleefs. Only the music endures; not even so powerful a man as Richard Curtis — maker of Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually — can outmuscle rock and roll.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky