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Movie Review: Pirate Radio

BY TOMMY MORGAN JR. | NOVEMBER 16, 2009 7:22 AM

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*** out of *****

Some movies, such as Baby’s Day Out or Killer Klowns From Outer Space, are doomed from the beginning. A terrible soundtrack, bad casting choices, or a poorly written script can turn the best intentions into another cobblestone on the road to Hell. Pirate Radio has all of the right elements in place, but it fails to capitalize on them. The result is a barely above-average comedy that serves as a study in lost potential. Though a cool and humorous look at an oddball cast of characters, Pirate Radio lacks the substance needed to make a truly good film.

The movie centers on a band of misfits living on a ship off the northern coast of England in the 1960s. The all-male — save for a lesbian cook — crew operates not a fishing boat, but an underground radio station. Radio Rock broadcasts rock ’n’ roll to the masses at a time when traditional radio won’t. Meanwhile, on land, government minister Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) tries to devise a way to shut the station down.

While the music is certainly the star of the movie, to evaluate Pirate Radio on the merits of its soundtrack would be akin to praising the Da Vinci Code for the presence of the Mona Lisa. With a musical guest list featuring the Beatles, the Who, and other ’60s rock staples, the film’s music is stellar and tells the story well.

Pirate Radio also features a cast of stars and relatively unknown but brilliant comedians that seems a recipe for greatness.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is his usual spectacular self playing the Count, the lone American DJ whose passion for the music leads him to consider literally going down with the ship. Nick Frost is a scene stealer as Doctor Dave, and he proves that he can turn on the humor when Simon Pegg isn’t around.

Throw in Bill Nighy as Quentin, the vaguely effeminate leader of the group of rock pirates, and Pirate Radio appears ripe for comedy gold. For the most part, the cast lives up to its comedic potential.

But it all falls apart in the story. The plot of the film, a collection of tales of real-life radio pirates, comes across as little more than a mish-mash of barely connected vignettes. The only thing holding the narrative together is the tale of Dormandy and his henchman — the lamely named Twatt (Jack Davenport) — trying to bring down Radio Rock. They’re all-but unnecessary save for their gluing effect on the plot. Dormandy is nothing more than a stereotype. He is, essentially, the Man, and the case against him is nothing more than one-note jabs at authority that ring hollow.

The pacing of Pirate Radio’s story, much like the narrative itself, is suspect. Time is dramatically condensed, and it’s hard to tell if days or weeks pass between events. The characters even forget adultery and other friendship-changing moments as quickly as they happen. Perhaps trying to replicate the sense of time caused by spending months trapped aboard a ship, the result of the film’s pacing is a frenetic, off-kilter story where plot lines are dropped off the side and never found again.

For a two-hour film, Pirate Radio goes by in a blur. It is sometimes a funny and passionate blur, but in the end it still comes out fuzzy.


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