Thursday, November 26, 2009

Ahoy, Mate! Pirate Radio!

I avoided the '60s love-fest Pirate Radio for its first few weeks because, well, it's a '60s love-fest. It's not that love-notes to bygone eras are bad. Hollywood's love affair with the Gilded Age lasted into the '60s and produced some of my favorite movies. (That's 30 years of nostalgia!)

Rather than compare and contrast turn-of-the-century nostalgia in the '40s to '60s nostalgia today, though, I'll just stay focused on this particular movie, the Richard Curtis (writer/director of Love Actually) pic The Boat That Rocked. Or, as it's known here in the States, Pirate Radio, with distributors perhaps hoping for a Disney tie-in. (Pirate Radio of the Carribean, anyone?)

Pirate Radio is sort of an Almost Famous on the high seas. (If even has Philip Seymour Hoffman!) Basically, a teenage boy is sent by his mom to live on a ship that's anchored off of England in order to supply Britain with desperately needed rock music. (Government-controlled radio won't play any of it. To paraphrase one character, "That's the point of being the government. If you don't like something, you can pass a law to make it illegal.")

So, there's your story: coming age plus the renegade cool cats versus the squares in government. Neither of these stories is done very well. No, strike that. It's not that they're done poorly at all, it's that they're barely done.

But you know, I've never seen Almost Live—a generally highly regarded movie—a second time, and yet I might watch this again.

The very thing that kept me away from this movie was a fear that it might be self-important. A rock-saves-the-world motif. And of course, not really the rock 'n' roll that my dad's generation dug, but that high '60s stuff which some people earnestly maintain was the Best Music In The History Of The World. And all, like, socially relevant 'n' stuff. And that this would be contrasted with social repression, brought down by titans of social change who set themselves against...well, you get the idea.

To hearken back briefly to Hollywood's love of the Gilded Age, as if the great things of that era were the result of Ragtime.

This movie does none of that. It's really just a series of vignettes and character interactions punctuated with brief montages of people listening to the radio.

What a relief.

The guys on the boat are half-defiant, half-loser, whose defining characteristic is their love of music. This seems reasonable. Musicians aren't really revolutionaries—and these guys wouldn't have been crossing swords with the government had the government not created (let's be honest) a black market for rock.

It's kind of interesting to watch the twisting of the movie's villain as he comes up with various ways to make pirate radio illegal. It reminds one that governments claim all sort of "reasonable" power which they then used to stamp out things they just plain don't like.

But it's not exactly historical. Even the sampling of music is probably a bit ahistorical. (The opening of "Won't Get Fooled Again" is part of the soundtrack—but not as a record, only to punctuate a dramatic scene. What would we do without Pete Townsend?) This may have been to avoid a lot of the seriously overused tracks. Also, no Beatles. (Beatles songs almost never seem to be in movies that aren't Beatle-centric.)

Again, though, this is really at the level of your average low-budget coming-of-age tale with good music. It's better than most because it's consistently funny. Also, acting. We have Kenneth Branagh as the evil minister of musical correctness, or whatever the hell his position is, with his ex-wife Emma Thompson as the mom of Carl (played by Tom Sturridge). I didn't recognize either of them.

Fans of the BBC show "Spaced" will recognize Nick Frost, in a (once again) completely different character. This time he's a rock 'n' roll Lothario. Really! I marvel over Frost because he doesn't consider himself a real actor. Which tells you something about the English versus Americans. Here, a guy who gets to be famous repeating a catchphrase in a sitcom thinks he's ready for Hamlet next. There, the guy probably has done Hamlet, and still considers himself not quite legit.

Finally, there's Bill Nighy. Ever see the second two Pirates of the Caribbean movies? Nighy played Davy Jones. Those movies would've been ten times better with more Nighy. In the Underworld movies? He was King of the Vampires or somesuch. Those movies aren't very good, but they'd have been a millions times better with more Nighy. Love, Actually features him in the washed-up rock 'n' roll star role, singing his old song naked.

Good movie. Needed more Nighy.

You know that movie Precious, about the black girl with the poor self-esteem and crappy home life? Bill Nighy isn't in that, I don't think. I haven't seen it. But it'd have been better with more Bill Nighy.

The Boy was pleased. The movie kept him laughing, and that was quite welcome.

Go in understanding what it is, and what it isn't, and you can have yourself a good time.

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