Friday, November 13, 2009

The ship that rocked a nation

Philip Seymour Hoffman and friends defend rock 'n' roll.

Nostalgia is a cheap enough trick, but it works especially well when it's connected to a time that seemed to brim with counter-cultural impetuosity.

And what better place to express such longing than Britain during the uproarious '60s? In those days, rebellion may have been as easy as turning the radio dial: Rock 'n' roll, you see, was banned from mainstream broadcasting; i.e., the BBC. To combat this censorial outrage, a variety of broadcasters established stations on ships that floated in the North Sea off the British coast. The ships hosted DJs who played rock and who lived rockin' lives, meaning they indulged in sex, pot and music, while cultivating an Animal House-like fraternal atmosphere.

Pirate Radio is the story of Radio Rock, one such ship; it is also an ensemble comedy that boasts a fair measure of rag-tag charm and an ample helping of period music.

Pirate Radio also has a fine cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman signs on as The Count, an American DJ working in Britain. Bill Nighy -- brilliant at playing characters whose witty abilities match their capacity for debauchery -- plays the owner of Radio Rock, and Tom Sturridge) portrays Carl, a young man whose mother (Emma Thompson) suggests that Nighy's character take her son under wing. Nighy's Quentin instantly recognizes the request as a grave error in judgment on Mom's part. Still, he does his best to ensure that the young man enjoys himself.

There are sexual high jinx on board the ship, lots of camaraderie and a budding rivalry between the Count and Gavin (Rhys Ifans), a DJ who fancies himself the sexiest man on the airways.

Of course, every group of rebels needs opposition. Enter Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), a minister who oversees broadcasting and who works tirelessly to get Radio Rock off the air. His assistant (Jack Davenport) tries equally hard to please his boss. This may be the weakest element in the movie, mostly because the stuffed-shirt British officials make too easy a target, cardboard cutouts ready to blow over with the first rebellious wind.

Pirate Radio was directed by Richard Curtis, who wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill and who wrote and directed Love Actually. Here, Curtis makes little attempt to conceal the movies episodic nature.

Few difficult truths are allowed to interfere with the '60s nostalgia. But if one is going to be overwhelmed by fondness for the past, it might as well be for the days of sex, drugs and rock n' roll rather than for some equally mythic time when all virtue coalesced on neatly kept, middle class front porches.

Taken as an ode to youth and unruly spirits, Pirate Radio signals fun.

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