Thursday, May 6, 2010

Jolly Rogers

What writer-director Richard Curtis does really well is showing how self-defined families are brought together by adversity. That family may be a circle of friends or an entire nation--maybe it's all about being British and learning to muddle through. But it is a bracing refutation of irony and despair, especially for a nation (Britain) in which irony and cynicism or de rigeur.

I was surprised to read that Pirate Radio (original terrible British title The Boat That Rocked)(2009) had gone through much tribulation on its way to becoming the film it is today. Evidently subplots had to be removed as well as some of the melodrama that still somewhat disfigures the third act of this version of the film. (Reportedly it had a half-hour excised at the insistence of its American distributor, Focus Features.)

Historically, the film is a complete non-starter. For the record, the BBC did not play rock and roll records because of union jurisdiction, not as a philosophical stand against rock and roll. The BBC could not play any records at the time--everything had to be performed or recorded specially for BBC, which is why there are a large number of Beatles recordings made solely for BBC air. The historical circumstances around the creation and suppression of pirate radio in the BBC are wrong from start to finish, and the film cooks up a flashy, but out-of-left field finale in which the ship sinks. I have an aversion to third acts that do not originate from elements of the first act, e.g., character or at least events sent in motion by characters. This one is completely arbitrary, and if it did not have the celebratory Dunkirk-style finale of having our heroes picked up by their fans it would have been inexcusable.

However, the three-quarters of a film that proceeds that episode are terrific good fun, especially if you like pop and rock of the mid-60s. This film has (unsurprisingly) one of the all-time great soundtracks. It is a charming coming-of-age story for its young protagonist--actually it would make a good double feature with Taking Woodstock: "how rock and roll saved my life." The nominal star, at least for the American market, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, has very little to do, and is upstaged by Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost and the incomparable Bill Nighy (center in the photo above). The film is at its best when its trying to do the least, that is, when it is just relaxing and having a good time, not dabbling in politics or arguing for the counterculture. (The subplot involving Kenneth Branagh as a repressed government minister trying to shut down rock and roll is silly and juvenile. They even give him a stumpy mustache as if he were an evil German.)

Given that Pirate Radio is best when we are just enjoying the community spirit of the usual band of Richard Curtis eccentrics, not pushing a story or a point of view, but just rocking and rolling, did anyone consider this for an open-ended television series?

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