'Pirate Radio' sets sail with sound, energy

On any given Friday or Saturday night in the early 1960s, it was not unusual to pull into a drive-in filled with cars and kids, some leaning against fenders, others deep in conversation, and hear on more than one car radio Wolfman Jack, rock 'n' roll deejay extraordinaire, a legend in his own time. "Let's git nakkid" he'd call out as he segued into "It's All Right (Mama)" by Elvis Presley, one of the first and perhaps greatest rock 'n' roll songs ever.

Wolfman Jack. Gravelly voice. Diabolical laugh. No one had ever seen him. He was an enigma. Rumor had it that he was on some ship off the coast of Mexico, staying one record spin ahead of the culture cops. Or possibly he was hold up in a beachside, cinderblock shack with a monster antenna, south of Tijuana.

And, as it turned out, that's exactly where the Wolfman was, slammin' and jammin' at station XERB-AM, sending out a powerhouse signal to all places north, up the coast of California, reaching Alaska on a clear night.

What was undisputed was that the discs Wolfman played captured the essence of being young during the late '50s and early '60s. Rock 'n' roll was transcendent. It was heart-wrenching, spine-tingling, drop-to-your-knees wonderful. And more. There was Big Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and Bill Haley and the Comet's "Rock Around the Clock," all precursors of some of the most vital, Motown-inspired music to ever come out of the '50s, soon morphing into the Stones, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, James Brown and the Beach Boys. Rock 'n' roll was the cresting wave, a cultural zeitgeist.

Great Britain, in so many ways, mirrored America, creating its own unique version of rock 'n' roll, led by groups such as The Who, The Kinks, Cream, Pink Floyd and, of course, The Beatles. And for a time, in the '60s, British kids tuned in late at night to a rogue rock 'n' roll station, beamed from a ship somewhere off the coast.

And that is the essence of the film, "Pirate Radio." An improbable group of disc jockeys kept rock 'n' roll on the radio 24/7, to the absolute delight of the nation's listeners and to the consternation of the British government and the BBC, which took great umbrage at the airways being filled with such "rot."

Led by Cultural Minister Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Brannagh), a concerted effort is set in motion to sink the renegade ship, so to speak, and shut down the illicit music once and for all. Rock 'n' roll, it was decided, posed a threat to homeland security.

Meanwhile, on board, the deejays are running a floating animal house, engaging in pranks and fun and music. The housemother, so to speak, is Quentin (Bill Nighy), the captain and titular head of this ragged crew, with The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Gavin (Rhys Ifans) filling the prime-time radio slots.

While the story is thin — there is a subplot, a sort of coming of age saga about young Carl, the nephew of Quentin — the energy and sheer delight conveyed by the film makes for sweet entertainment and the soundtrack, meaning the platters spun, is, simply, top drawer.


When filmgoers sit down to watch an apocalyptic movie, it's a given that they suspend their disbelief regarding all that is outlandish and simply sit back and enjoy the ride. And what a ride it can be. With the ever-growing sophistication of special effects (CGI), films of this ilk grow ever more dramatic and intense.

Consider the recently released "2012." It's "end-of-times" filmmaking on steroids. King Kong of catastrophe.

The movie does, however, follow a familiar template. Act one: Ivory tower scientists, usually reserved in their discourse, discover that a serious problem is approaching, one that could have a devastating impact on the planet and mankind. Act two: How to sell the data to recalcitrant and even hostile government officials. With the help of seismic events — earthquakes, hail showers at the equator, volcanoes erupting, temperatures fluctuating dangerously — the officials are brought around. The question then is, what to do to prepare for the event. Act three: The protagonists find themselves in harm's way as the crisis escalates and they struggle to survive. All around them, destruction is occurring on a scale never seen before. Act four: The climax and denouement. The sun rises, but on a completely changed world. All of the central characters have survived — bloodied, exhausted, but still standing.

Again, not enough can be said regarding the role played by CGI in constructing these films. The technology has taken movies such as "2012" into a totally different realm. Of course, the narrative is important, but these movies are rarely about unresolved relationships. Small problems are solved ("Do you really love this guy?"), while trapped in a ship's compartment with water flooding in, the rising water being far more important than the answer to the question.

For this film, 1,000 people worked at 15 different special-effects studios to create the nonstop catastrophes, to include a blue screen that was 600 feet long and 40 feet high.

The movie is endlessly gripping and the crises, once things get rolling, are stacked like Legos with few moments of relief.

Of course, there will be those who say that John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet and Oliver Platt, all exceptional actors, are wasted on this type of movie, given the flat dialogue and skinny plot. But it's a given that both exist in service of the action — what's ahead, what's behind, and how can we save ourselves.

As Armageddon films go, "2012" is a solid example. Compared to the recent "The Day After Tomorrow," well, it's a step up and a step down. "The Day After" did have a more realistic feel to it, given that climate change is something that audiences are familiar with as compared to the earth's core growing hot enough to cause tectonic shifts, which is the case in "2012."

One other note: Hollywood has been very successful in creating what can be referred to as post-apocalyptic films. An event has occurred, something that has changed the earth dramatically (a worldwide epidemic, a war). How often, in the set-up to such a film, does the central character emerge to find mankind gone, the streets empty, cars abandoned, stores empty. The challenge is, how to survive. Examples would be 'The Postman," "Planet of the Apes," "I am Legend," and "The Omega Man." Survival is again the theme, though adapting to a world after a cataclysm is a far different proposition, though no less interesting.

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