Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Pirate Radio

I strongly recommend Pirate Radio (originally released in the UK as The Boat That Rocked and still playing in some NYC theatres under its American title — which may mean it’s about due on DVD for all I know).

I was concerned that despite the action (inspired by real events) taking place in 1966 under Labour, the film would be an excuse to turn the battle between the British government and unlicensed shipboard rock n’ roll broadcasters into a simple right-vs.-left fable, complete with stodgy people and idealistic youth. Instead, 1966 seems convincingly chosen simply because it was the hippest, most mod year in the history of rock. Better still, right and left are never mentioned in Pirate Radio.

On the contrary, we are repeatedly told quite explicitly that “government” (in general) is opposed to “freedom,” and no one can come away from watching two hours of Kenneth Branagh’s uptight, controlling bureaucrat character feeling that government is a more liberating force than the market. He even offers what was probably a consciously bipartisan excuse for cracking down on the rock n’ roll boat and its cast of wacky DJs: The ship and its foul music are degrading morals and engaging in crass commercialism.

So it’s a movie about rock n’ roll + commercial freedom pitted against anti-capitalism + authoritarian social conservatism, a formula that seems natural, very American (even when set in the UK), and a must-see by the standards of this website.

Another reason to see Pirate Radio: fantastic deployment throughout of Bill Nighy as the captain of the boat. Funniest I’ve seen him, I think — not just funnier than Slartibartfast in Hithchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy but even funnier than Victor, king of the vampires in Underworld. There’s something almost Buckleyesque in the way he casually inspires esprit de corps while seeming vaguely as if he’s lazily melting as a side effect of his own elitist disdain for the events unfolding before him. And, hey, Buckley smoked pot on a boat in international waters, so he might have enjoyed the film, too.

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