Ship of Rock!

Though it's beautifully shot, 'Pirate Radio' sinks due to flat characters and abundant movie clichés

If there's one thing movies have taught me, it's that people who like rock music are zany and fun and wear colorful clothing which they remove to lovingly express their sexuality through the divine gift of genital-genital contact.

Meanwhile, government officials who dislike rock music have boring haircuts and dull parties where they wear outfits that express a lack of rockingness. So, and therefore, they are evil and must be defeated by humiliation or assimilated into the rock organism at which point they will loosen their tight hairdos and succumb sexually to counterculture erections.

You can pretty much spin the rest of the plot of Pirate Radio out of that terribly original premise by adding two-dimensional characters and dialogue that sounds like it was picked up off the floor of a freshman screenplay-writing class at a community college for robots. Essentially, Pirate Radio is every rock movie cliché stuffed together into a boat while taking itself way too seriously for even the medium amount of fun that such things are meant to offer.

Philip Seymour Hoffman inexplicably stars as The Count, a DJ on a pirate radio station broadcasting to the United Kingdom in 1966. He and his fellow DJs and hangers-on live on a rusty ship anchored in international waters so as to provide quasi-legal rockage to the music-needy people of England.

You see, their government—as epitomized in the Minister of Flaccid Penises and No Fun, Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh, who used to do Shakespeare, and now, from the looks of him, apparently does crack and Metamucil)­—has decided that rock music is veddy veddy bad, because it promotes, like, I don't know, sex or something? That part's not really well-explained. Let's just say he's opposed to boners.

So Sir Alistair tries to find a way to shut down the pirate radio stations that dare to R-O-C-K in the U-K. To that end, he employs his assistant, Mr. Twatt (Jack Davenport), to invent new laws that will unrock England. Of course, it's hilarious that a man is named Twatt, since "twat" is a slang word for "ladypart." Yes. This movie actually stoops to the sub-college-comedy trick of naming its characters after quaint terms for genitals.

Anyway, I guess there's sort of a plot revolving around an 18-year-old boy named Carl (Tom Sturridge) who comes aboard the pirate radio ship when he's kicked out of boarding school. His mother, a slutty former slattern and practicing tramp, fearing that Carl might not be getting enough drugs in his diet, sends him to live with his godfather, Quentin (Bill Nighy), who owns and runs the pirate radio boat.

Then there's the incredibly original subplot wherein young Carl tries to lose his virginity. It's about time someone made a movie about a boy getting laid. Other narrative threads include a rivalry between The Count, who's actually of American extraction, and the no. 1 British DJ, Gavin (Rhys Ifans); Carl's search for his father; and the general efforts of the various crew members to rub up against anything that might lactate. Surprisingly, though, there's no onscreen nipples or hard drug use. (There is some marijuana, so those who are not so rocking in their attitudes toward the doobage should, like, chill out, comma, man, because: rock 'n' roll, exclamation point.)

The film is pretty male-centric. There's a rule on the boat that no "chicks" (i.e., female human beings) are allowed as permanent residents unless they're gay or married to one of the perpetually randy and bachelor-type DJs. So there's one regular female, a lesbian who makes food and cleans up after the men, and a rotating cast of mini-skirted eye-candy-types who come out to lubricate the crewmembers' pants-dragons, and then must head back to shore before they ruin the party-osity with their inherent feminine inability to truly rock when not being fornicated. (I realize that's an intransitive verb; please substitute the transitive term of your choice.)

The characters are painfully shallow, and none of the little subplots go anywhere except precisely where they're expected to go. So I guess creating a predictable story with flat characters and a lack of original content is the new way of expressing nonconformity and the awesome attitude of rocking. Other than that, the only truly objectionable thing about the film is a sequence wherein young Carl and a pudgy DJ named Dave (Nick Frost of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and now, to his eternal shame, Pirate Radio) conspire to rape a young woman. It's actually pretty disturbing that they even plan it, and as they're conspiring, it never seems to occur to them that this is a very bad thing to do to a person. Luckily, the rape doesn't go off, and then the audience is supposed to laugh, I think, as the naked would-be rapist runs down the halls of the ship cupping his manly bits so as to hide them from our sensitive eyes. ROCK AND ROLL!!!

On the upside, Pirate Radio is beautifully shot. It's loaded with the kind of cinematic trickery that was popular back in the '60s: The camera and central figure rotate around a room; wide-angle and distorting lenses are used; and my favorite effect, the track-in/zoom-out, gets some play. But mostly, the visuals are great because of the careful placement of figures and the use of large patches of bright, solid colors.

So if you were tripping on five hits of acid, and your heightened consciousness was somehow filtering out all the dialogue, Pirate Radio would be a pretty good movie.


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