Retro Review of “Pirate Radio”

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down and watch a film that was recommended to me: a 2009 ensemble comedy titled Pirate Radio and starring Philip Seymour Hoffman with plenty of other British comedic talent. I had no real idea what to expect going in blind, other than knowing that it was a film about pirate DJ stations in the sixties. What I got was a surprisingly good comedy with only a few sour spots.

The plot of the film is very simple and completely fictional, though it is based on a series of events that did happen in the real world. This approach is somewhat similar to Lord of War, where a culmination of events from multiple sources were compiled into one fictional character’s story. Our protagonist is Carl (played by Tom Sturridge), but the entire crew serves as a protagonist, a concept reinforced throughout the entire narrative presentation. Mostly everyone gets plenty of screen time, though it’s not entirely equally distributed. You still end up feeling as though you are watching a collection of intimate stories of people, with some very human connections. Characterization is definitely one of this film’s strong points, bolstered by some pretty great acting from every possible contributor- both big and small. Another definite strong point is the set design- not only does this film authentically feel as though it’s from the 1960s, the set has these small movements to most of the props that are coordinated to appear as though they are on a ship that is set to sea. It’s these small movements that make it feel as though this film is truly alive, and that we are simply omnipotent observers watching these pinpoint moments in the lives of these people.

Most of the comedy is well done and timed very well, and edited in such a fashion that doesn’t feel forced or rushed. You can tell that Richard Curtis and the crew put serious time and work into making sure that the jokes are delivered in such a manner, and in typical English fashion, plenty of it is dry and witty. On the other hand, there were not too many moments that that made me guffaw with laughter at any point. For a comedy, that is quite a bit of a downside, although it’s also true that having each of these characters feel genuine and alive is equally important. Considering the huge coordinated effort it took to properly balance all of these elements, perhaps it’s its own miracle that it came out as good as it did in the end. In fact, one of the lesser developed elements is the interaction between these rogue DJs and the role they had on censorship in the United Kingdom at the time, even though that conflict is the central background device of our story.

Overall, what this movie does right is usually not quite anything that pushes the standards forward, nor is these beautiful cinematography or much arthouse influence. This is not a film that revolutionized anything, but does what it does well and creates a well done atmosphere of life and authenticity to everything that happens on the boat. Yes, its soundtrack has some great classics, and you see how the music and commentary these DJs provided mattered in the 60s United Kingdom, but its climax comes to a somewhat screeching halt towards the end and there’s a pretty big tonal shift that doesn’t quite fit the mix properly, in my opinion. I can say, however, that I didn’t feel as though my time was wasted, and I still managed to have a pretty great time watching this film even though I wouldn’t put it on a Must Watch list. I give this film a 7 out of 10.

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