“Pirate Radio” – Good Movie Ahoy, Mateys

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By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Hijinks, rock-‘n’-roll, freedom of speech and a coming of age story comprise the nostalgically entertaining cargo on writer-director Richard Curtis’s good ship “Pirate Radio.” Whimsically construed from a smattering of fact and fiction, it is a magical mystery cruise on the high seas of the late 1960s. You don’t want to miss this voyage.

Call it the Carnaby Street version of “Captains Courageous” (1937), fancifully updated and mixed with a dizzying, acerbic commentary on the prevailing political winds that buffeted a generation. Here, the castaway who washes aboard in the company of motley mentors is Tom Sturridge’s Carl. He’s not sure why Mummy booked the rite of passage.

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But fresh from his recent cloistering a la “Tom Browns School Days” (1940), he is virtually shot out of a cannon, landing on deck with some of the coolest teachers he will ever know. They are the DJs of the infamous Radio Rock, a former tanker broadcasting the latest sounds in musical rebellion, many untouchable miles off the coast of England.

Led by Quentin, the fabulously foppish station owner portrayed by Bill Nighy, the crew features platter spinners of every stripe. Their witty and vibrant synergy, a delightful amalgam of competition and camaraderie, is the stuff young music buffs dream of nightly. OK, so no ladies allowed, except every couple weeks. Such is the price of glory.

The only exception is Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), the shy cook whose lesbian status permits her entrée to the gang, unofficially captained by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Yank DJ extraordinaire, The Count. Deviously influential is Nick Frost as puckish Dave. We’re left to wonder why Carl’s roomie, Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke), is so named.

Other radio personalities worth pondering include, Chris O’Dowd as lovelorn Simon; Rhys Darby as Angus “The Nut” Nutsford; News John (Will Adamsdale); and Tom Wisdom as the handsome Mark. And, can’t tell you why, but Rhys Ifans as legendary deejay Gavin “The King” Kavanagh is winningly comical in a pungent subtext.

But while the main plot is essentially the education, romantic and otherwise, of young Carl, a countervailing subplot adds political spice, intrigue and some anxious moments to the mix of music and dormitory antics. Waging his own private war against Radio Rock is uptight cabinet minister Sir Alistair Dormandy, derisively etched by Kenneth Branagh.

Were it not that Branagh’s imperious prig launches his diatribe-packed witch hunt from the contrasting confines of Parliament, he might have stolen the show. But director Curtis judiciously cuts to the venal volleys in fine order, thus achieving an effective, threatening complement to the idyllic free-for-all. Pity is, some of the direction isn’t quite so astute.

There is a first-rate, British comedy cant to the doings. Which means the steady issuance of offhanded remarks and lightning fast, equally understated rejoinders. While Brits with great hearing won’t miss the vernacular-laden nuances, others may wish the volume were pumped up a tad. It could preclude appreciating some scenes on a deductive mime level.

Still, personalities, motives and enamoring idiosyncrasies eventually all fall into place, and one is soon ensconced in the glowing lunacy of the Radio Rock. Because so few folks realize their vocational heart’s desire, it’s inspiring to know that there are others besides the Seven Dwarfs who get to whistle while they work.

Not that everything among the radio jocks is always “cream and peaches,” as my Mom was so fond of inverting. As each heaven must have its pitfalls, expect the usual helping of sneaky backbiting and devilish rivalries.

Particularly amusing is the competition for Grand Kahuna of the airwaves. A nasty glitch in Carl’s lessons d’amour is quite poignant.

But doubtless the film’s most compelling quality is the very idea itself, a theme not uncommon in British literature. It’s the escape from reality and authority, the proverbial hideaway on the bounding main with the idealistic successors to Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. Happily, as in “Yellow Submarine” (1968), “Our friends are all aboard.”

And then of course there’s the music, a veritable rock-‘n’-roll discography, deftly keyed to the saga’s ebb and flow. Music supervisor Nick Angel’s interjection of era classics is spot on, in both accompanying the action and inevitably evoking a personal memory or two. Too bad tempus fugit, as sometimes it’s just a few bars of a favorite to echo a mood.

While fiction, there is nonetheless truth in the chimera, and an earnest poke in the eye of autocracy. Indeed, spiffier editing might have made her more shipshape. Still, it is good to occasionally swagger with optimistic revolutionaries and bask in an ocean of unlimited possibilities. Sailing under that flag, “Pirate Radio” joyfully shanghais your imagination.

“Pirate Radio,” rated R, is a Focus Features release directed by Richard Curtis and stars Tom Sturridge, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Bill Nighy. Running time: 116 minute


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