Because the internet is forever, I spent some time yesterday revising and copyediting a six year old post, my review of Pirate Radio from spring of 2009. Actually, it didn’t need that much work. Just a bit of polishing. Reads pretty well, I think, and it wasn’t a bad little movie.
Because it's set in Great Britain in 1966, Pirate Radio,also known as The Boat That Rocked, inadvertently raises and unsatisfactorily answers the question What was rock and roll rebelling against if it wasn’t the Vietnam War?
Rock and roll pre-dates the anti-war movement by well over a decade---even longer, if you want to make the case that rock really began with what the blues musicians were doing in the late 40s---and for most of those years the answer to the question, What are you rebelling against? had been provided by Marlon Brando in The Wild One, What have you got?
Really, though, rock and roll wasn’t the music of rebellion or political protest---that was folk music’s job. It was the singing of the collective hearts of millions teenagers. It was the music of youthful high spirits and burgeoning sexuality and that’s why the grown-ups hated it. So in a roundabout way rock became a counter-protest against parents and other authority figures protesting against rock.
That side of things had become old hat by 1966 (See 1963's Bye, Bye Birdie, a mainstream Broadway musical that’s mainly about how square the old folks are when it comes to music and sex, and Ed Sullivan, who did not book the Beatles, the Stones, and the rest because he wanted to stick it to the Man) and it’s possible that if the War hadn’t come along rock and roll would have gone tamer sooner and what happened to it in the post-punk, MTVed 80s would have happened to it in the late 60s or early 70s. Complete commercialization.
Actually, it more or less did happen in the early 70s. Punk and New Wave wererebellions---against what had happened to the music.
But the US went full-tilt into Vietnam and over here rock and roll became tied to the anti-war movement and so the music became explicitly political or was interpreted as political even if the lyrics seemed to be about other things, except, you know, when it was explicitly or was interpreted to be about getting stoned or getting laid, but then getting stoned and getting laid had political implications in those days too, so it was all about the War.
Over in Britain, that didn’t happen. Not that British kids didn’t protest the war. They just didn’t have the same sense of…urgency. So, I’ll ask again. What was rock and roll rebelling against over there?
Pirate Radio’s unsatisfying answer is Kenneth Branagh.
I enjoyed Pirate Radio but I’m going to be hard pressed to find a lot of good to say about it as a movie. As a documentation of how fine actors can take the slightest material and without putting a lot of effort into it or showing off can make you wish you could see their Hamlet or Lear---or in the case of Nick Frost, his Falstaff---it’s fun. Kind of like being in the room when your favorite musicians strike up an impromptu rock and roll version of "You Are My Sunshine."
And as an advertisement for its own soundtrack album it’s damn near irresistible .
But as a story it’s, well, not one. It’s a series of character sketches not so much strung as chained, heavily and ponderously, together by a theme the material just doesn’t bear.
The crew of DJs aboard the boat that rocks, a refitted freighter from which, in defiance of a law I find it hard to believe existed (Editor’s note: But see the comments below) and out of reach of the police, they broadcast music by the Kinks, the Stones, the Hollies, the Who, and just about every other band and and singer renowned over here as stars of the British Invasion, except for the Beatles, for whose songs I assume the movie’s producers couldn’t get the rights. The DJs regard themselves as fighters in a guerrilla war against forces of repression, conformity, enforced bourgeois dullness, and the eradication of any colors from clothing except gray.
But the only representative of these forces is the character played by Branagh.
Branagh plays the gray-haired, gray-faced, gray-suited, gray-souled Sir Alistair Dormandy, a cabinet minister who has decided it’s his job to shut down the radio pirates because…because…
Well, because. You get the feeling he’d have made it his mission to put the pirates out of business no matter what they were broadcasting, Mozart, jazz, songs me old dad sung to me around the campfire, or all-polka all the time. Dormandy seems to hate the pirates on principle, but he never explains what that principle is. It doesn’t appear to be moral, philosophical, religious, legal, or musical. What it really seems to be is pathological. Based on a scene in which he is shown rigidly enduring his own family’s Christmas celebration, you’d have to guess that what really motivates him is an aversion to fun.
And it’s not the Puritan’s aversion to fun. A Puritan hates fun because it might cause people to forget to mind their morals and their duties to God and business. Dormandy seems to hate fun because it might lead to messiness. He describes a young colleague’s slightly longish and unbrushed hair as “ugly.” To him, it’s not that order creates beauty. Orderliness, for it’s own sake, is beauty, although he would not use the word, beauty. It’s too emotional a word, and emotions, because they stir people up, cause disorder. Emotions would be by his definition ugly.
No wonder he works so hard not to have any and to stamp them down in everyone he has any power stamp them down in.
It’s easy to imagine Dormandy deciding to ban funerals because grief is so ugly.
He’s like a pompous, self-important robot who has decided that it’s time for human beings stop acting so much like human beings.
Life, as he sees it, would be neater, more orderly, not beautiful, but less ugly, if he could just remove all the things that clutter it up and tend to get easily out of place. And that’s what he goes about doing, in his job and in his personal life, eliminating disorder by removing what he sees as clutter. He’s the ultimate minimalist.
He hates fun because when people have fun things, and emotions, get out of place, and he knows the pirates are helping people have fun, so they must be shut down before things really get messy.
This is a mania of his own. It’s not shown that he shares it with anyone else, especially not with the people of England he’s supposedly serving. For all we see of the rest of England---and, probably due to budgetary constraints, that’s precious little. Almost the entire movie takes place either on the boat or in the dim, gray, anonymous interiors Dormandy makes grayer with his presence---the whole country is listening to the pirates’ radio shows and dancing ecstatically to the music.
He has the passive support of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet---an ahistorical indulgence of poetic license. The Prime Minister at the time was Labour’s Harold Wilson and he and his government were busy liberalizing everything in sight and if there’d been a law banning the playing of rock and rock on the radio they’d have been the ones looking to rescind it.--- but the bored and distracted ministers seem to regard what he’s up to in the same way they’d regard his efforts if he was in charge of dredging the Thames or buying new uniforms for the Army. They trust him to have identified a problem and they expect he’ll fix it now that it’s identified, because that’s what he does. It's the sort of dull, routine task of governing they all have to do. Beyond that, they’re not interested.
And outside of the Cabinet he has no allies in his benighted mission. He just has two less than competent minions, a silent and obedient secretary of the if only she’d take off her glasses and let down her hair sort who seems baffled and vaguely annoyed that no one is offering to remove her glasses and let down her hair for her (Sinead Matthews) and who secretly listens to Pirate Radio when she’s alone at her desk, and a single henchman, a self-castrated careerist named, too humorously, Twatt, (Jack Davenport) who is motivated at first by opportunism and then by fear of losing his job. Twatt has no opinion on the music it’s his job to silence and he manages only a pale and impotent anger, more of a sullen irritation, really, towards the crew of Pirate Radio and that has nothing to do with what they stand for, just what they stand in the way of---his career advancement. The music business itself is full of such characters.
Dormandy, when all’s said and done, is a solitary and unique character. He’s a grotesque, a type but not typical and because of that he doesn’t represent anything or anybody but himself. You can’t build a protest movement around a rebellion against a single person’s grotesqueries. Although it’s to be hoped that his daughter and his secretary stand up to him sooner rather than later, he isn’t somebody the DJs need to give much thought to, and they don’t.
They don’t even know he exists. They feel the effects of his efforts to put them out of business---well, of Twatt’s efforts on his behalf---but as annoyances more than as blows struck in a fight for the country’s collective soul, and they thwart Dormandy and Twatt easily, at every turn.
Still, they believe the music they play is important for reasons beyond having a great beat and you can dance to it, and they think of themselves as heroes and rebels and leaders in a cultural guerrilla war. (Actually, they’re a bit self-important in this. Although they love the music, they don’t seem to know that they aren’t the ones making it, that there are real artists at work creating it. I can only recall two times when any of them mentions a musician by name in connection with his or her talent.) And the movie seems to want us to see them this way.
The trouble is it provides no context in which to do so. Not only is England largely absent from Pirate Radio, so are the 60s. There are no juxtapositions with television and movies and news clips from the times. There are no Zelig- or Forrest Gump-esque moments when one of the characters steps into the midst of actual events or meets up with a real person. A scene of one of them having to take his own measure against the likes of Mick Jagger or Ray Davies would have been interesting. Nobody talks about what’s happening in the world beyond the boat. The British Commonwealth was sending troops to Vietnam at the time but there’s only a single reference to the war and it’s offhand, the basis of a metaphor, and used to set-up a joke.
And the music itself doesn’t evoke the period because it’s all too good. It’s all stuff that has lasted. The DJs spin records that I was spinning when I was a DJ in college and that I listened to in grad school along with the Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, and the Clash. A lot of those bands were still recording. The Stones still are. For all the difference it made to me, the two Elvises were contemporaries and as far as any nostalgia the soundtrack brought out in me, it was nostalgia for my own glory days in the 80s. I suspect it would have a similar effect on my eighteen year old niece. (Violet Mannion, by the way, is her high school’s foremost authority on all things Beatles.) This music gets played at everybody’s proms and weddings.
You don’t conjure up the 60s by playing Dusty Springfield singing "You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me" because that song is still breaking hearts.
So, I ask again, what was the point?
Meanwhile…some fun and funny scenes, some fine ensemble acting anchored byPhilip Seymour Hoffman. Rhys Ifrans, Nick Frost, and Bill Nighy, and you can’t go wrong with those guys in your cast, and, of course, great music.
Far from a great movie, but it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it.
Pirate Radio, written and directed by Richard Curtis. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Nick Frost, Rhys Ifrans, Charlie Rowe, Chris O'Dowd, Jack Davenport, Emma Thompson, January Jones, and Kenneth Branagh. Rated R. Available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
This ought to make a mess of your emotions: