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Movie Review: Pirate Radio

Nov. 13 2009, Published 10:37 a.m. ET

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Breaking rules and behaving badly have always been in fashion for boys of all ages. But nothing beats getting rowdy and fighting the power in the name of rock and roll -- especially when it reels in the laydeez.

Such is the groovy life for the rag-tag gaggle of guys in Pirate Radio, the latest film from writer/director Richard Curtis (Love, Actually, Notting Hill). Based on real events, the movie tells the story of a group of deejays in the mid-1960s who are so dedicated to bringing music to the U.K.’s rock-deprived masses that they live aboard a ship on the North Sea to broadcast Rock Radio 24/7. As the movie’s plentiful montages reveal, their music inspires a nation to dance spontaneously. Brits may seem like a dour bunch with poor dental care, but Pirate Radio portrays everyone from the local grocer to privileged school girls breaking out moves and big smiles at the drop of a hat... Everyone, that is, except a grumpy, fun-hating government hack (Kenneth Branagh) who launches an over-the-top campaign to take them down.

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As the ship’s eclectic bunch rock against the proverbial man, a fatherless, nerdy teen named Carl arrives when his mum sends him to sea to shape up. Carl (Tom Sturridge), we quickly learn, is also a virgin -- a salient fact that gives the Rock Radio clan another mission to pursue. Once aboard, the gangly, insecure boy begins to bond with the motley crew of misfits reveling in Peter Pan-dom, enjoying everything from impromptu dance parties to bi-weekly social events, during which ladies are invited to join them for a special day of free-lovin’ sexy-time.

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Thanks in part to a roster of venerable actors, the male bonding on ship lends Pirate Radio some of its most fertile material, featuring a deft sensitivity -- minus the sap -- that achieves that wonderful cinematic state of simultaneous poignance, tenderness and humor. When young Carl experiences his first heartbreak, two of the deejays try to cheer him up in an adorable, wordless scene that doesn’t need dialogue to warm the heart. In another such scene, Carl and The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) share A Moment above deck when The Count actually admits that this nautical, childish fun can’t go on forever.

Unfortunately, Carl’s moment of uber-poignance is brief and all-too-fleeting in what ultimately is a glossed-over homage to the 1960s, without enough consistent nuance to be effective as a whole. With booze, exuberance and rock and roll, Pirate Radio has all the makings of a great movie that you want to love. But without a commitment to keeping some toe-hold in reality or disciplined navigation, it slips away from the mooring of promise and sails into murky waters where jumping the shark abruptly ends the party. Set to a sound track featuring iconic bands like the Kinks and the Who, Pirate Radio plays like one long bromance, lost at sea.



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