Thursday, November 19, 2009

Film Review: Pirate Radio (The Boat That Rocked)

British ensemble comedy The Boat That Rocked, retitled Pirate Radio for American audiences, has suffered at the hands of critics on both sides of the pond. The film, about a group of DJs running a pirate radio station from a boat off the shore of 1960s England, has earned a 54% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

I have no desire to argue with the detractors. Pirate Radio is clearly flawed, a jumble of incoherent plot fragments and poorly developed characters (what the hell was Ike Hamilton’s character’s job on the boat?). The ending is at odds with the tone of the rest of the film, and the film’s premise is not nearly as historically accurate as it would lead audiences to believe. Finally, it was still a little lengthy despite a recutting for the American version.

And yet, at the same time, it’s a joyous celebration of some great rock ‘n’ roll. Never mind that some of the song choices are a little hackneyed. The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night” isn’t exactly a forgotten gem, but who wouldn’t want to hear it again? The Rolling Stones, Small Faces, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Otis Redding, Cream, The Beach Boys, and Martha & The Vandellas are just a few of the classic artists featured on the soundtrack.

Several songs make strong contributions to the film’s tone. Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” makes a logical and powerful appearance.

One minor complaint about the music selections: at least one song was not period appropriate. The movie, set in 1966-67, predates The Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” by a good four years. British soul revivalist Duffy also makes an appearance, but she’s covering an older song.

The amount of rock cred bursting from the movie doesn’t stop at its soundtrack. The cast of characters on the boat embody the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, from Midnight Mark’s legendary silence to Gavin’s distinctive on-air voice, from Dave’s rampant sexual appetite to Bob’s burned out demeanor.

It’s already clear how important rock is to the DJs, considering they’re willing to seclude themselves on a boat for its sake, but the numerous scenes of characters simply dancing to the music cements that fact.

Philip Seymour Hoffman plays The Count, the American member of the crew of DJs. Hoffman, as an actor, has a generous helping of inherent cool that allows him to believably portray characters like this. I’ve seen Almost Famous so many times that, as far as I’m concerned, Hoffman actually is Lester Bangs. And The Count loves the music so much that he’d be willing to die for it.

Music fans will likely find little to complain about while leaving the theater. This is a movie about the joy of music. Plenty of films have examined the joy of making music, but this one delves deep into the amount of pleasure that can be derived simply from listening. That pleasure is catching.


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