You know, I’m not typically into doing movie reviews, though I do periodically enjoy prophesying about upcoming films. Every once in a while, however, a movie comes along that just didn’t get the recognition it deserved, and I feel it’s my job as something of a pop-culture guru to comment on it here, because all of you need to see it. All of you. Need.
Anyway, the British.
As a general rule I am not an enormous fan of Great Britain. Being half-Irish I’m almost genetically predisposed to have a hate-on for those people, and being Canadian I’m sort of expected to balk under the notion that we’re still inexplicably part of the Commonwealth and therefore still have the Queen on our money. Add into that the somewhat sub-par experience I had in London when I ventured there a number of years ago (everyone assumed I was American without checking and shat on my head), not to mention The Cure, and you’ve got a recipe for a dyed-in-the-wool Anglophobe.
However, I have to give the Brits some credit: despite being responsible for Bush X and the Spice Girls, they’ve also given us the Clash, Echo and the Bunnymen, Bauhaus and Billy Bragg, not to mention an entire era of brilliant rock and pop typified by the likes of the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, the Animals, and a little band you might have heard of called the Beatles.
Britain is also the home of some of the best comedy in the world: everybody seems to like The Office, if only because the American version raised awareness about how much better the original actually is, but there’s also Fawlty Towers, Monty Python, Bill Bailey, Eddie Izzard and a host of others I could name.
So when Jeff from Crudely Interrupted suggested I check out Pirate Radio, the recently-released comedy from Working Title that debuted several months ago across the pond under the name The Boat That Rocked, I approached it with a degree of cautious enthusiasm.
Apparently the film was met with widespread commercial failure in the nation that bore most of the members of the remarkable ensemble cast, a figure that kind of surprised me. The Brits I’ve known have been fiercely nationalistic when it comes to their homegrown talent, and when you’ve got Bill Nighy, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson in the ensemble lineup, you’d think on that basis alone those selfsame nationalists would be lined up all the way to King’s Cross to check out this flick.
Anyway, they didn’t like it, so a few months later they retitled it and sent it overseas for our consumption, albeit under a more generic name (ever notice how media from other countries is constantly getting re-branded for release here? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, anyone? What the hell?). I was immediately put off by the new name because it made me wonder what else they’d changed to make the film palatable to American audiences, but I’m pleased to say that if they changed anything at all, I didn’t notice: this movie is British to the core, especially as far as its unique humour is concerned.
Part of the reason I don’t do reviews very often is because I don’t like doing plot rehashing. Every review I’ve ever read of a film includes at least a little of that 6th grade book report plot overview, which has never made any sense to me in a world where IMDB and Wikipedia are at our fingertips. So if you want a plot summary, go here or here because you’re not going to find it here.
In fact, when I think about it, the prevalence of those services almost make reviewing obsolete – or at the very least, it makes reviewers of the Ebert and Roeper ilk obsolete. When you can read reviews from fifty million people who’ve seen the film, what are you going to get out of those two that you can’t get out of anyone else?
Okay, maybe you’ll get less of the “dis movee be teh gheyz lolrotflmfao pwnzord” kind of reviews that, admittedly, are probably of limited utility, but how much more are you going to get out of guys like Ebert and Roeper? I mean, at least Roger Ebert was a doctoral candidate in English studies and has a list of writing credits that stretches back to the early ’60s, but check out this excerpt from Richard Roeper’s Wiki page:
“In Feb. of 2009, Roeper launched his own web site, http://www.richardroeper.com, which features movie reviews, blog entries about politics, sports and movies, photos and Twitter entries. For most of the year Roeper was posting print reviews and blog entries.”
Sound like anybody you know? Okay, he’s been doing it considerably longer than I have, but I couldn’t find anything in his educational history that makes him a dyed-in-the-wool expert about movies. So if the only thing that sets him apart from the unwashed masses is the ability to write coherently and express himself using the English language, I guess he’d better watch his back – because now vaunted social critic Alex James is after his job. “Ebert and James at the Movies” sounds far better than “Ebert and Roeper”, and besides: give me the job and there will be more cursing and highbrow toilet humour, which is great for ratings. Roger, if you’re reading this, you can contact me through the blog. Just think about it.
I digress. Back to the Boat.
I think what impressed me most about Pirate Radio/The Boat That Rocked, ironically the same thing that probably made it a commercial failure, was the fact that it didn’t really fit into the canon of Hollywood archetypes. Is it a comedy? Yeah, but in the last few years I’ve seen only a few very distinct types of comedy come out of California.
The first is your run-of-the-mill Romantic Comedy that follows a very distinct set of rules: guy falls for girl, things are going great, something happens to disrupt their relationship (usually the appearance of Other Male Lead, also known as Competitor for the Lady’s Hand, or else the male lead lies about something and hopes the Lady doesn’t find out) leading to hilarious misunderstanding that, in real life, would be easily sorted out by a little honest communication. There is a reconciliation in which the Power of Love is discovered to be able to overcome all obstacles, and the story ends with a suitably amusing Happily Ever After, often featuring some kind of wedding montage. (See: almost anything Hugh Grant has ever been in)
The second is the Bawdy Humour Comedy that makes use of a plethora of dick and fart jokes to fuel a loose plot line often involving some kind of romantic side plot. (See: almost anything Adam Sandler or Ben Stiller have ever been in)
The third (and the only one I can stomach on a regular basis) is the Experimental Comedy that features dark, cynical humour to drive a somewhat more structured plot line that rarely has anything to do with romance. (See: the Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson, among others)
PR/TBTR incorporates elements of all three comedic types: while there are several romantic sub-plots, they seem to be designed only as elaborate side-jokes rather than the driving force of the story; thanks to the inclusion of the mildly offensive Nick Frost we get our fill of bawdy sex-humour as well as little jokes like the inclusion of a government official aptly named “Twatt”; and the somewhat absurd nature of the supporting characters (most especially Emma Thompson as the male lead’s mother) makes for a lot of the dark, purposeful humour I remember from the likes of The Royal Tenenbaums. And yet PR/TBTR still doesn’t fit any of the archetypes comfortably. I’d hazard to say there’s something for everyone, but like I said before, the humour is fundamentally British – a trope I have trouble defining beyond saying “fundamentally British” – and when it comes to the dry, often surreal nature of British humour, it’s been my experience that people either like it a lot, or they don’t get it at all.
PR/TBTR also tries to be a coming-of-age story. It calls strongly to mind Cameron Crowe’s brilliant film Almost Famous which takes place during the same general time frame (and also features the always-outstanding Philip Seymour Hoffman in a remarkably similar role – AF sees him playing rock critic Lester Bangs, while PR/TBTR places him in the shoes of fictional pirate rock DJ The Count); the young male lead is trying to find his place in a world saturated by some of the best music ever to grace the airwaves and populated by all the eccentric characters spawned by that musical movement. He even loses his virginity with the same fanfare foisted upon AF‘s lead boy; having grown up with much older friends, I find scenes of that nature always make me smile with nostalgia.
Soundtracks are a big part of what sells movies like this to me. As a musician I’ve always been a fan of movies in which music plays a major role in either storyline or ambiance: my two favourite examples are mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap for the music-movie genre and heavy-hitting drama The Hours as a prime example of the importance of soundtracks to film and story alike. PR/TBTR‘s soundtrack is equally important on both levels: the story deals with the real-life controversy of pirate radio stations in Britain during the early ’60s, and given most of the cast are DJs for these stations, the soundtrack is as integral to those characters as the story line.
I’m not going to list the entirety of the soundtrack here for the same reason I didn’t give a plot summary, but you should really go look at it. Within the bounds of credible length for a released film score, it reads like a who’s who of the important performers of the mid ’60s through to the early ’70s, and I’ll be honest: even if the film itself had sucked, I would still give the music producer top marks for the choices made on the soundtrack.
Critics panned the acting in PR/TBTR as sub-par, wooden or stale. Critics are assholes. As I mentioned before, Philip Hoffman is fantastic as always, and although he isn’t the “star” (if there is such a thing in an ensemble piece) he roots the story and is perhaps the character to whom I found myself relating most. Bill Nighy proves once again how dynamic he can be: straight off the long-running Underworld series, he completely reinvents himself as the flamboyant captain of the titular Boat – and his outfits are spectacular. Nick Frost is his disgusting self, and I wouldn’t have him any other way. Rhys Ifans is the popular guy you love to hate, and if ever I’m asked to cast a biopic about David Bowie, he’ll by my choice for starring role. Newcomer Tom Sturridge brings teenage awkwardness to cringing life like I haven’t seen it since The Breakfast Club. Kenneth Branagh very nearly steals the show in his role as Minister Dormandy, the ultimate walking stereotype of a stuffy, right-leaning British government official, and the rest of the cast is just as solid and believable.
I’m not normally big into ensemble casts because they have a tendency to fail either by a) trying to provide equal screen time to everyone and therefore giving adequate development to no one, or b) totally ignoring 90% of the so-called “ensemble” by giving too much screen time to one or two characters. PR/TBTR succeeds where others fail thanks to outstanding writing: no, not every character has equal screen time or equal lines, but every character is memorable in some way – you walk away with the distinct sense that these are real people you’d want to get to know better, rather than set pieces you can conveniently ignore. The best I can equate it to is good serialized television writing condensed into a couple of hours: everybody on the cast gets a plot line that’s seen through and given sufficient closure at the end of the film to achieve that tenuous audience balance between satisfaction and the desire for more.
A lot of people who know me will watch this film and probably find it surprising that I’ve given it such a glowing review. I’m not normally one for comedy, unless it falls squarely into the aforementioned archetype #3, and while I’m a fan of music movies, this one is almost a little silly to normally find its way into my extremely serious, often cynical outlook on – well, everything. But sometimes, just sometimes, even a guy like me just wants to sit back with a drink in a comfortable chair and be entertained. This movie does that.
Is PR/TBTR a classic film? Hardly. Is it high art? Not when the term “fuckload” shows up, it’s not. Is it thoroughly enjoyable and absolutely worth the money to rent it or get it from iTunes or whatever it is the kids are doing these days?
In a word, yes.
This one gets the Alex JamesTM Seal of Approval, folks. I would urge you to go rock the boat at your earliest convenience. You won’t be disappointed, and if you are – well, you’re entitled to your wrong opinion.
Some extra housekeeping news: I’m still guest-blogging over at Stuff Ad People Like, so if you’re frustrated by my sporadic update schedule around here, drop by there for some more Alex James goodness every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. And if you haven’t checked out the official State of Affairs Facebook Fan Page, why haven’t you joined the rest of us in the 21st century, Ezekiel? Thanks to all those who’ve joined the page. More tomorrow – or something approximating tomorrow.