RIORI Vol 3, Installment 32: Howard Deutch’s “The Replacements” (2000)

Replacements one sheet

The “Players” (get it?)

Keanu Reeves, Gene Hackman, Brooke Langton, Orlando Jones, Jon Favreau, Rhys Ifans and Jack Warden, with Fazion Love, Ace Yonamine, Troy Winbush, David Denman and Michael Jace (plus John Madden and Pat Summerall, naturally).

The Story…

The Washington Sentinels have gone on strike, but the game must go on. Especially since the playoffs are a mere few weeks away. F*ck throwing in the towel, Sentinels’ owner Ed calls on and old coaching buddy of his, Jimmy to rally up some scabby troops and assemble a working team. Albeit a team of washouts, criminals, head cases, drunken soccer stars, former sumo wrestlers, a deaf halfback and of course a quarterback with a sketchy history.

Uh, maybe “working” is a relative term here.

The Rant…

Americans love an underdog story, especially in cinema. It’s a tried-and-true trope—gimmick is probably a better word—of having some misfit (or group of misfits) struggle against societal odds in a clumsy way only to later have THAT BIG MOMENT where everything bonks together and happily ever after pass the gravy. It’s an old story employed as long as the lifespan of your average Twinkie. Wholesome goodness.

The underdog story has also been played the f*ck out in Hollywood. It had its time, its moments. It even won an Academy Award or two (think Forrest Gump or the original Rocky) when done tastefully. But the underdog tale is a horrible cliche, run amok for way too many years at the multiplex. Sure, audiences never seem to get sick of the formula, but I consider that way of thinking and feeling in a stark contrast to how True Americans ultimately embrace—and eventually deject—the hardscrabble hero for a given, very short time frame. It’s happened before and sure as sh*t it’ll happen again. And again. And I hate you all.

The “American Dream” is based on a work hard/get ahead ethos. It usually also stems from the successful being borne into a meager existence. Folks like Abe Lincoln, JC Penney, Sir Richard Branson and even the McDonald brothers are good examples. The “humble beginnings” story is a delicious one in fiction, too. Including the two films above, you can probably name endless movies of this ilk; people overcoming great odds to becoming a success, with all the ups, downs and trappings that go along with it.

America laps this crap up, in the movies and other media outlets. We love to raise the underdog upon our shoulders in praise, and later toss them into the gutter when they get too successful, famous and eventually ubiquitous. The relationship sours. No surprise that Steve Jobs was lionized after the success of the iPod, iPhone, iBlender, etc only to be picked apart as some Machiavellian control freak when Apple replaced morality in the country. And after he died? Whoo boy, media field day. No wonder Wozniuk stayed in the basement.

Why is this? I mean, there are plenty of entrepreneurs et al that avoid this spin cycle. Ben and Jerry still make great ice cream, despite being retired but keeping their company’s charitable causes on point. No matter how pretentious the U2 guys get, they still keep their heads from getting relatively too far into the clouds and still release solid (not necessarily great) albums while being philanthropic. Even the late, hard-working Paul Newman kept his humility regarding his craft and his charities.

Does generosity have something to do with it? Work hard, get ahead, later share the wealth in a Carnegie sense? Avoid the egotistical muck that gets smeared all over Access Hollywood? Maybe. But the phenomenon of the underdog roller coaster persists notwithstanding. It’s almost as if Americans want to see their heroes fail. An ongoing cycle of schadenfreude. Praise Kanye at first and strip him to the bone later (even if he hadn’t invited it. Picking on poor, little Taylor. The nerve). Hell, you bought his f*cking albums already. Where do you think that bank account and ego come from, in that order? Blame yourself folks, and be patient for the next man on a white horse to ride into Hollywood.

What’s my point? None really. Does the underdog film appeal to us because of the above, heartwarming template? Does the opposite in reality stem from jealousy? Is it all just of us watching Springer? I’m no social critic—not professionally at any rate—but I think the underdog tale is a very vicarious one. Most of us wake up everyday feeling like a Tom Waits lyric, but hope later in the day we’ll write Rain Dogs. That’s why we put the album on.

I’m thinking the corruption of the underdog stems from said dog believing his or her own press. Enough people deify you, you’ll claim you wrote the Bible. Take for instance this pop culture example: we have two musicians. Both worked together. Both got terribly famous, wealthy and eventually revered for their work. When they parted ways and pursued solo careers, both maintained their cachets and appeal as music makers. Barring tragedy (one lost his wife to cancer, the other was killed), their legacies were secured, and integrity mostly intact. However one got a lot of sh*t for being outspoken while the other dodged most of the slings and arrows of universal fame for the remainder of his years.

One was Paul McCartney, the other John Lennon.

How did one get public grief while the other (barring dying young) mostly avoided the media mill post-Beatles? I don’t know. Best ask George Harrison…um, back in 99.

All right. Enough bullish*tting. Onto this week’s installment. Not sure if the ensuing torches and pitchforks are relevant to my ramblings, if only to reinforce that the underdog sports comedy is a warhorse beyond being bound for the Elmer’s factory.

Hell. Well anyway, it’s time for kickoff…

Pro athletes can be a fickle, spoiled lot. Even though they work hard getting pummeled on a weekly basis, one can’t ignore Bentleys going unpolished or mansions with two of the three pools with busted filters. They want more money; equal wages for equal time. And what’s that birdsh*t still doing on my digital sundial?!?

Strike, strike, strike.

The Washington Sentinels’ owner, Ed O’Neill (Warden) won’t have any of this pouting and pussing out. Playoffs are in a month, by God, and we’re gonna have a team to play. What to do?

Desperate times and all. Ed calls on his old coaching bud Jimmy McGinty (Hackman) for just the ticket. Jimmy’ll assemble a motley crew of players who don’t need their Maseratis detailed, Swedish masseuses on their glutes and stock indexes checked every time they fart. No. Jimmy’s got the action. Get hungry players; the guys who love football and wanna be champs, if only for a little while.

Ed’s wary of this. Who exactly does Jimmy have on his roster?

Well there’s Cliff Franklin (Jones), who can run like the wind and catch like a blind quadriplegic. We got insaniac cop Dan Bateman (Favreau) who lives to…hurt things. With some mild, legitimate pro sports experience there’s lushy, chain-smoking Welsh soccer star Nigel “The Leg” Gruff (Ifans). And our quarterback, the sullen, maybe cursed Shane Falco (Reeves) with a big chip and a long hangdog. They all wanna play bad. Maybe they’ll only just play bad. Either that or head back to their cells.

What could possibly go wrong?


All right. I kind of knew what I was getting into when The Replacements arrived, and I wasn’t disappointed. This meant I expected to be disappointed, and the movie delivered.

Let’s forget most of the philosophizing from above for a few. Most of it. A lot of heady crap for a throwaway sports comedy, right? Disregarding my usual, subtle-as-neon social commentary, the whole underdog thing only works when the dog in question (or in the case of The Replacements, the whole pack) is fleshed-out. Rocky Balboa was a Regular Joe. Forrest Gump was “stupid.” Delta House were a bunch of losers. We know this why? Backstory and good characterization. The Replacements’ cast—although not boring. Stereotypical yes, but not boring—only comes across as half-baked. And not in the Jim Breuer sense either.

Back in the day (the late 70s to be exact) a underdog sub-genre took the cinemas by storm: the underdog sports comedy. It all started with the original Bad News Bears (I can’t believe I have to preface a title that way. Everything is being remade and rebooted at such a rate I can’t keep count let alone keep the sh*t in my queue), the ur-ne’er-do-well does well sports comedy, of course cast with insufferable imps that eventually grow on you. Bears was the gateway—for good or for ill—for movies like Slap Shot, North Dallas Forty, The Longest Yard and so forth. What made these retreads work was good characterization and a degree of wonkiness with the characters that made the show a decent one.

What made The Replacements tank was a dearth of consistently notable characters. The older films weren’t fun because they were underdog stories (although they were), rather the dogs in question were really f*cked up. Remember what I said about believable characters in film? They don’t have to be likable; they have to be relatable and interesting. I mean, the footballers in The Longest Yard were bloody convicts, before God (and forget the Sandler remake, please?). Not a lot of nice guys in those classic flicks (the National Anthem brawl in Slap Shot? Very patriotic), and the better for it.

Replacements major faux pas is setting us up with drab, stereotypical characters that are written to be likable. If you wanna have an underdog sports comedy, you need to have a cast of miscreants that get under your skin at first and gradually win you over. I’m not saying this as an absolute, but it worked pretty good in the past.

Maybe more simply, Replacements had boring, color-by-numbers characters.

This was quite the shame, too, since the eclectic cast was stellar and totally misused. If they all were better written their predictable stereotypes could have been more palatable. Even funny, if only on an inconsistent tilt.

The other major blight on this movie was it was totally formula in action here. I know, I know. Kinda alluded to that issue before. Just was girding myself for the slaughter waiting on my DVD player. I packed my rucksack well. Sure enough, I got me predictable dialogue, paper thin plot—muted, too, like the movie was bored with itself—its inevitable outcome and trying too hard to recreate the feel of those old skool sports comedies. Even my wife said it was boring, and she usually likes…movies not like this. So my disappointment was well prepped.

But here’s the hell of it: The Replacements was funny, if only in fits and sputtering starts. Despite being an obvious Major League rip-off (which oddly was a late-entry sports movie that worked), where that film’s silliness was inspired and a decent homage to its ancestors, almost everything in Replacements is rote and smelled like the crew was asleep at the wheel. If the few funny moments were buttered over the course of the movie we might’ve had a football Major League to enjoy. We didn’t.

I know. I’m slagging on this week’s travesty pretty hard. It took me three nights to finish it, I was that bored. But I gotta be fair, even a blind squirrel finds a nut with a chewy nougat center rolling around outside the multiplex once in a while. What few moments of funny were good, they were pretty damned amusing. Thankfully, almost inevitably these yuk-yuks came from the eclectic cast; they managed to extricate themselves once in a while from the corporate Hollywood mire now and then.

The biggest treat in The Replacements was Favreau’s maniac performance as…well, a maniac: the unhinged Dan Bateman. Prior to this movie, Favreau made his mark portraying lovable, schlumpy losers (e.g.: Swingers, Very Bad Things, PCU). Not here. His Bateman is a wild dog of a nut job, hamming it up and behaving like a toon out of Wacky Races. Sure, his character is a cipher, but sometimes you need a little chewing gum once in a while. Just go along with Favreau and roll your eyes.

Speaking of an actor being out of place with himself, how did Hackman get conned into this movie? I figure he just wanted to catch his breath and have some fun. If you consider Hackman’s fifty-plus year career, the man’s been riding on a sine wave of great films balanced against stuff like The Replacements. Most esteemed career actors have a CV that can get scattershot. I mean, Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda didn’t quit drilling once they hit oil. Once you thought their roll slowed down—bang—out popped a “comeback” role.

Not so with Hackman. Consistent peaks and valleys across the board. Yeah, Replacements was a valley, but still he delivered his best. His best just being Gene Hackman. The Conversation and/or Unforgiven The Replacements ain’t. Then again, that’s not a fair comparison (duh). What Hackman brings to this movie is Hackman. His work is like sex: when it’s good, it’s great. When it’s bad, its still pretty good. And I’d be hard pressed to think otherwise that the man was off on a goof here. I mean, look at the throwback Bear Bryant hat he’s sporting. A nodding wink, fer sure.

Despite the goofiness, Hackman and even Reeves maintain their cachet. Like I said in the Watcher installment, Keanu is a passive actor; everything happens to him and he initiates nothing. His Falco is no different. C’mon, he’s yanked back into the fray with reluctance. He’s riddled with doubt and under confident. He’s the primo underdog here (would that make him an omega dog? Nah, sounds like a reject from the X-Men). That being said, Reeves is in his element here, as usual. It ain’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s kind of comforting in a way, especially since he’s portraying a classic reluctant hero type here. It offsets the motley crew, begrudgingly highlighting them. When you got a heavyweight like Hackman and welterweight Reeves on the marquee, its easy to ignore the minor players. Unless you’re bored with the marquee.

That’s where I felt Jones and Ifans entered stage right. I spoke of my affinity for Ifans’ comic talent before, and it’s still intact here. He has got to be the best peacock plunked down into American cinema. I don’t know how he fares as a star in the UK on his own, but when cast in an American film his simultaneous fish-out-of-water/this is my pond (bitch!) attitude is both endearing and forehead slapping. I find he’s only funny when totally out of place against American actors. His incongruity as Gruff the “football” player clearly not belonging in the Yank camp shows off some knowing goofiness that landed The Replacements a simple Three Stooges feel. Ifans was a stooge of one, and that’s a complement.

Orlando Jones still thinks he’s on the set of MadTV here. His Franklin is a rubbery clown, and since seeing his versatility on television with his protean comic talents, I liked his Dangerfield-esque delivery in the movie. The only problem with his delivery in The Replacements is that you can’t appreciate it unless you base it against his work on MadTV. It’s kind of a detriment, and otherwise his Franklin is just another nervous Nelly. His performance well illustrates the schizo nature of the film: The Replacements can be an amusing film, so long as there’s some context, like with Ifans. Or Hackman. Or even Love, for Pete’s sake. You really shouldn’t have to do homework to appreciate those guys’ efforts with ha-ha.

I guess that’s the biggest issue with The Replacements. You shouldn’t have to try and find the funny here. Gaging that, it ultimately comes down to not the underdog schtick, the prickly casting or the derivative plot. I walked into all of that sh*t with eyes wide open. No. You shouldn’t have to study a dumb comedy to figure out what to laugh at. Eyes wide open I knew what to expect. I didn’t think it was going to be so hard to understand why.

The Replacements is a hollow affair, and the actors clash violently against a tried-and-true plot device. The movie was an exercise in desperate tedium, baiting yours truly with precious few chunks of comic gold. Yet it still supplied the warm fuzzy that accompanies an underdog sports comedy. Christ, it was exhausting.

So was this installment. File it under unnecessary roughness.

Oh, shut up. I’m tired and you’re ugly.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it, but with reservations. Huh? I know. There’s some nuggets here amongst the silt. The Replacements is a lazy Saturday afternoon movie, one designed to get you away from the Internet porn and lawn darts for a bit. I sure wouldn’t pay the the 30 cents to download it though.

Stray Observations…

  • What’s up with the soundtrack? It’s both out of place and eerily appropriate. Here’s a movie made in the 00s with an 80s-flavored soundstripe. I kinda dig it.
  • “By Welsh standards.”
  • Nice boots there.
  • “Thunderstruck!”
  • He we have Jon Madden at his most sedate.
  • “You’re late.” “Car trouble.”
  • Admittedly, the “I Will Survive” bit in holding best showcased Jones’ comedic talents.
  • “Nothin’ like a good bar brawl. Avoid them at all costs.” So that’s what I did wrong.
  • This is a PG-13 movie straining to be an R. The MPAA lost here.
  • “Let’s play football, bitch.”

Next Installment…

Hey. Wouldn’t accidentally traveling back to Medieval France disrupt history’s Timeline? Not to mention Paul Walker’s credibility as a bankable actor? Ces’t la vie.

RIORI Vol. 2, Installment 30: Richard Curtis’ “Pirate Radio” (2009)


The Players…

Philip Seymour Hoffman, Tom Sturridge, Nick Frost, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans and Kenneth Branagh.

The Story…

It’s the mid-Sixites, and the British music scene is in trouble. At the peak of Britain’s burgeoning rock n’ roll vanguard, the BBC won’t permit even an hour of the music to ride their airwaves across the land. Across the land, yes, but on the North Sea it’s another matter, and it’s up to the crew of the Radio Rock and others to broadcast pop music to a grateful public whether the Great Empire wants it or not.

The Rant…

Many musical musings this time out here at RIORI. Me just blogging out again. But never fear, it’s all in the spirit of this week’s installment since our movie’s about music in general and radio in specific. Just figured I’d offer up y’all some backbone to show I know what I’m talking about. Or at least slather some healthy bullish*t around to give the impression I do.

So I used to be a DJ. Wait, that’s not quite right. Let’s back that up a few years…

I came from a musical family, although they didn’t know that at the time. At a formidable age, I took up interest in playing the saxophone. My inspirations were humble. In grade three, I knew nothing about John Coltrane, Charlie Parker or my personal sax god Wayne Shorter. When I was a kid, the keen sounds that horn player Kirk Pingelly of INXS made was my bag, not to mention Greg Ham from Men At Work. Those guys and the cool outro courtesy of Ronnie Ross on Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side.” Sax was my second instrument, thought. The first being was my parents’ turntable.

I was properly corrupted at a young age. In their youth, my dad was into folk-rock—Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, the Mamas & the Papas, Simon & Garfunkel, Pete Seeger—and the Stones. My mom grew up with the Beatles and Motown. Her first concert was catching the Four Tops at college. To this day, whenever “It’s The Same Old Song” comes on the radio, usually in the car, she starts fingerpopping and swiveling in the seat like an 18-year old. It’s always pleasantly embarrassing. I, however, was a Stax guy, Soulsville, USA. Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, Booker T, early Aretha. Those cats. To that, my mom passes me a cocked eye. We could both do worse.

Sure, I dug the Stones, the Beatles, Sam & Dave, Bob Dylan and many others from the ‘rents halcyon days. My uncle turned me on to Carlos Santana. I am forever in his debt, and he is never getting his first pressing of their self-titled debut ever back. But without my very uncool parents, separated from their LPs shoved back into the closet, too busy raising my sisters and me, I guess I’d never develop a pair of ears.

Thanks to this restless intro into pop music, I would have never picked up the sax, messed around with the drums (thanks to both Neil Peart and Stew Copeland), tried to play the piano (blame Bruce Hornsby) and pluck limply at a guitar (damn you, Carlos). I tried and failed to reproduce the music from my—and my parents’—youth, save the fact I eventually nailed Ross’ outro. And learned about ‘Trane and Bird and Wayne. Call it growth. Due to the exposure, my nascent interest in music resulted in a massive, quite unhealthy record/cassette/CD/download collection.

In hindsight, I suppose all of that got me the gig at the radio station.

Fast forward to 2005. I landed a show as a DJ on the local community radio station’s pop/rock block. There, the term DJ was reserved for guys who either wheel the steel at clubs or host drunken karaoke nights on Fridays at the local bar. Here’s an aside, and I’ll have many regarding pop music: karaoke, despite its nerdy connotations, can be really quite fun. I hosted a few nights at my local bar armed with a crate of CDs of both popular and semi-obscure artists that the drunken, fun-loving crowd might be able to rally around. The folks who wanted to get on the mic were divided into two camps. One were people, inhibitions loosened by liquor, who wanted to just have a laugh and try to be rock stars for a few minutes. C’mon. Who doesn’t want to be one at least once?

I remember this one time I was behind the deck and feeling sorry for a guy who was fumbling through the stream-of-conscious lyrics of R.E.M.’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It.” I jumped up on stage, grabbed a mic and gave him a hand, trying my best with Mike Mills’ backing harmony. When it was done, he laughed heartily and bought me a beer. The audience cheered and clapped. We all had fun. Mission accomplished.

On the other side of the stream, there were karaoke folks who were sullen and determined. When they got on the stage (or riser, as it often was), they performed as if they were reaching for something. Like Simon Cowell was in the audience somewhere, taking notes and tugging at his groin. This crew was not going to have fun. They shrilly tired to reproduce what they saw on American Idol, or what they thought they saw. They clearly weren’t drunk enough, or maybe too much. Ugh. In any event, they were decidedly not having fun. And when I had to repeat that there weren’t any awards given out (e.g.: no free booze) and it was all in fun, I often had my shirt collar dragged into an outraged Bo Bice wannabe’s face and forced to defend my sexual preference. Good times. Anyway, it paid my bar tab. And I had the chance to share mostly musical stories, dappled with a touch of high school nostalgia with a lot of drunken, giddy karaoke aidoru about what the song they attempted meant to them. It was like my early days with the sax. It was hard to not like these people.

That’s what DJs do: play music in hope to make listeners feel good.

When I eventually landed on the radio, I found out we called ourselves “programmers.” On air, my peers and I just played music, plain and simple. Mine was an eclectic show, playing mostly rock n’ roll, with a healthy dose of folk, singer/songwriter stuff, blues and other errata that was either deemed tasteful or noteworthy by what AAA (adult album alternative) standards dictated. In short, I was more or less free to play whatever the hell I wanted provided there was no illicit content (no cussing, pervy sex or Primus). It was enjoyable; my peers and me filled the ears of hundreds of listeners across three counties who had a penchant for the old, obscure, underground and up-and-coming musicians who otherwise wouldn’t find a spot on any local commercial radio station. We affectionately termed it as “left of the dial,” parlance coined by college radio stations and/or oddballs like us, using a signal usually below 100 mHZ, FM.

It wasn’t a paying gig. All of us programmers were compensated with free brand new CDs, old LPs that were bound for the dustbin, the occasional free tickets to local shows and/or interviews with the musicians who were playing at said local venues. It was how I got to meet the Black Keys before their meteoric rise to Madison Square Garden fame. Good for them; never have I known a band more deserving of the recognition they’ve since received. Pat and Dan are nice guys. I didn’t have to buy a single album for over five years, and my music collection skyrocketed. As well as my tastes and horizons. I’m not bragging, but in my music collection, I literally have thousands of CDs (2057 by last count, most of which are downloaded into my iTunes account, and I go nowhere without my iPod), hundreds of LPs and dozens of mixtapes kicking around. From the 101’ers to Warren Zevon. And the number is ever increasing. I think I might need some professional help.

Okay. Here comes the bitching.

I thoroughly dislike commercial radio. Why? I’m glad you asked. Besides the repetitive, numbing format/playlists, I hate the commercials, or at least the babbling. I know it pays the bills. In comparison to my station, being public, local business’ paid a flat annual fee to have their names mentioned at regular intervals during certain shows as “sponsors,” not unlike PBS. They donated a $1000 a year, give or take, and everyday at a selected time they would get their shout out. It was all neighborhood operations, so we kept it close to home. Go local! But unlike commercial stations, we’d never keep on blabbing up until the lyrics hit, say, on the opening bars to “Stairway to Heaven.” I think most commercial programmers just love to hear their own voice, and listeners distinctly do not. We wanna hear the music, unless you enjoy being buffeted by AC/DC’s Back in Black (just the four major hits) everyday three times a day every f*cking week. You can set your watch by it. I once made an on air bet with myself: play fifty songs within the allotted three-hour time slot. I spoke little; announced the forthcoming songs, backlisted the rest, gave weather, traffic, station ID at the top of the hour per FCC regs and the occasional promo here and there…and kept my prattle to a minimum. You tune in for songs, not schpiel, right? Well, the best I ever got was 47 songs, which is sh*t-ton more than your average commercial station can do three hours, let alone six. To wit, commercial radio is all about yapping and selling anything but the music. Music is merely a bookend between adverts.

Here’s an aside before I get too deep in snarky rambling: I had a buddy, a fellow programmer for the local “classic rock” affiliate. The term “classic rock” either refers to any rock music created between when the Beatles landed on the US shores up until Led Zep broke up, plus a few “modern classics” that did some hefty, pre-iTunes sales, and some out of it. I mean, I love Everclear’s jaunty tune “Santa Monica,” but as a classic? I guess I’m too old. Or too young.

Anyway my buddy ran the monitors at my local watering hole where I did karaoke as the sound guy for all the free shows local bands performed every Friday and Saturday night. Free live music is good, right? Not to him. Yeah, it brought a little extra coin to his pockets, but mostly he (we) had to endure endless covers of Tom Petty, the Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Puddle of Mudd (the f*cking “She Hates Me” single just doesn’t want to die). It was all cover bands, playing the same warhorses that were trotted out on a daily basis by his host station. He hated it; he kept a brave face, schilling for his station and manning the boards. But he hated it. Both he and I tired of said songs, and when a cool local cover band performed a left field tune, most of the would-be movers and shakers in the crowd would go “meh” and get back to their beers, much to our chagrin. The cover bands weren’t all one trick ponies. One group I enjoyed was fronted by an affable guy named Mike. He listened to my radio show and when his band performed at my bar, he was always sure to include “Life During Wartime” and “Sweet Jane” is his set whenever I came around. The rest of the regulars waited for a familiar tune that they had heard a thousand times over for free on the radio, not regarding any cover charge instead. I guess that familiarity doesn’t breed contempt in all people. At least, people who don’t listen to music so much as they understand certain sounds in the barest Pavlovian sense.

My friend was encyclopedic in rock knowledge. We would talk it up, he’d share stories about his days as a roadie for this band and that, the concerts he’d seen. He was once even so kind as to burn a pair of live Pere Ubu bootlegs onto disc for me, we being the only Ubu fans in the county, maybe the state. Regardless he loathed the format at his job, for the same reasons I did as a listener. But he, unlike me, had no choice. He had to talk it up on air, interrupting songs to promote the local auto dealers and just avoid the dreaded dead air. He had to drag out “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “American Girl,” “Rag Doll” and countless pabulum to make sure that the said car dealerships could keep paying the bills. Unlike me, I could spin Pere Ubu for my audience all day; they loved that sh*t.

That’s how commercial radio in my little ville went for decades. Even more so that when the evil Clearchannel, with its endless hydra-like tentacles clutched the majority of commercial stations, making sure that Katy Perry, Lady Gaga, One Direction and Adele have careers until Rapture. All in the name of profit, not music. Not really.

Let me drop some science on you, for those who care to actually listen to what commercial radio stations play: more than a decade ago, radio conglomerate Clearchannel more or less bought out (i.e. leverage gained) 90% of all commercial radio stations in the United States. Their format was profit expanse, never musical variety. They deemed what pop songs should be played that would get the most listener’s attention, and thereby would ramp up advertising increases to the hilt. Most of these radio stations only had a playlist of maybe 100 songs, and would grind them into the dirt until the listening public got bored and threatened to tune out. Then there would be a new crop of American Idol winners (and some of the flotsam), and the cycle would be born anew.

In sum, Clearchannel could give two sh*ts about music, so long as they can rake it in. And boy, do they rake it in. Sh*t as well as money.

Why do I dislike—hate—commercial radio? Well, besides the endless commercials, it’s killing music appreciation. Radio is the last free media in the world, and most folks get their minds wiped on a daily basis with the same 100 songs, often from multiple stations. Be it in our cars, at work (at the kitchen where I work, there’s a crappy little clock/radio that belts out late period Aerosmith and Back In Black with aplomb. I wanted to flush that thing down the toilet. I once vacuumed-sealed it in a plastic bag and headed for the men’s room, but my boss caught me, snatched back the radio bound for the sewers and chased me away. Meanwhile I stole its batteries. Tee-hee!) or at home. Clearchannel and what few of its ilk now pay the stations to play pop music with additional revenue to promote whatever artists they see fit to attract the most listeners for optimum times of day. In the biz, we call it “drive time.” What’s more lulling than being stuck in traffic, desperate for any distraction beyond not rear-ending the car in front of you? Hey. The radio. Click.



And to think, back in the early days of rock radio, to play such “drivel” was almost considered a crime. Radio was—and technically still is—a free market, and back then, unbound by the whims of big business, to be paid to play rock n’ roll was against the law. At lot of the early rock n’ roll DJs lost their careers if they we caught dead playing music backed by money from the studios. It was called “payola” back then. Nowadays it called “business.” Pioneer and seminal rock DJ Alan Freed paid the ultimate price for “accepting bribes” to play certain singles: he lost his career and eventually his life, all for trying to broaden the musical landscape with the devil’s music.

One time on the air, I had a birthday tribute show for Freed, playing old school recordings of one of his many live rock n’ roll parties. The likes of Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and of course Elvis would grace the airwaves, whipping the throng of already screaming teens into frenzy. One could feel from the lo-fi, dissonant tapings how rock n’ roll really irritated grown-ups back then. It was righteous. Nowadays, it’s business as usual, and all the numbing for it.

History lesson: it was even worse over in Britain in the dark, early days of rock broadcasting. At least in the US there were a handful of minor rock stations working their way through the country’s airwaves, bothering grown-ups and exciting kids alike. At least those stations were on land. In the UK, back in the 60’s, rock radio was more or less an overseas venture. Literally, over seas. Broadcasting rock music was illegal on British shores. Ah, but offshore was a different story, as this installment will soon report on.

Can you imagine that? Now here in the US we have an official constitution that grants freedom of expression, i.e. music, for anyone that wishes to sing, play and hear all different kinds, for good or ill. And a country, a culture much older than the United States’, oft-regarded as more “civilized” that us barbaric Yanks gives the hammerdown to freedom of expression. It seems that in to 1960’s, Brits were overwhelmingly partial to classical music, especially symphonies and opera (which is kinda funny since Germany is the home of many of the great composers, and Italy is top notch in performing opera. Germany and Italy. Two countries not terribly kind to the UK in the 20th Century. Hmmm…). And then these upstarts, these hooligans, these kids have the gall to create and perform this ragged, raunchy and very loud pop music that originated in the Colonies? The outrage!

Yes, outrage is just what the stuffy, old white men needed in their faces—and ears—in the middle of the ‘60’s. The Beatles, the Stones and their friends made damn sure of that.

Today we have thousands of commercial radio stations churning out pap in order to sell cars, pharmaceuticals, insurance and other very grown-up stuff under the aegis of Clearchannel. And Kelly Clarkson, Katy Perry, Bruno Mars, Nickelback and an unholy host of others have million dollar careers at the expense of good taste and discerning audiences. Can you just imagine over sixty years ago that to play the claptrap listed above would deserve jail time? Well, these days it should. But back in the day? In Britain? The home of the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, the Kinks and the Dave Clark Five? In the bloody 1960’s? Then? It was a stoning offense (pardon the pun).

Huh. Sounds like back then, rock n’ roll was doing its good number in the United Kingdom. AS IT WELL SHOULD…

Dateline: Britain. 1966. The House of Lords has a crisis on their hands. Not unemployment. Not health care. Not even football rioting. It’s a crime, but no-one can prove it. Under no one’s oversight, a group—nay, a veritable society—of ne’er-do-wells have taken over the UK’s radio waves, broadcasting filth and degradation to any innocent, proper British citizen to hear through the convenience of modern radio technology. The nerve!

Who are these dastardly smut peddlers? Ex-cons on the lam who managed to cobble together scrap transmitters to spew forth their filth? Fifth columnists with propaganda to smear and disrupt fine British normalcy? The sexual conquests of the Queen?

Worse. Pirate radio stations that broadcast rock ‘n roll music, the latest scourge to corrupt the Great Empire. And these pirate DJs immediately and easily damage anyone who has access to a radio. My, think of the children!

At least, this is what the folks on the SS Radio Rock are hopefully trying to do.

Lead by ex-pat American DJ, “The Count” (Hoffman) with his rabble crew of DJs and misfits at the ready, they do their damndest to broadcast the needful rock ‘n roll to a nation desperate to loosen up. It’s unfortunate that powers at the BBC are not in touch with the greatest art form since the Mona Lisa to rally fine Brits into mirth and merry. But never to fear: the Count and his crusaders are filling this niche, broadcasting rock from a ramshackle boat in the North Sea with the wonderful pummeling from homegrown rock bands like the Kinks, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Manfred Mann and a few scraps from the States. It’s what the nation wants! All 25 million of them, give or take.

Parliament does not agree. In fact, they aren’t even listening.

So Sir Alistair Normandy (Branagh), tight in the britches if there ever was such, sees a way into the upper echelons of Parliament with a new crusade: get rock radio off the air, cast away ships like the Count’s even though they aren’t really breaking any maritime or broadcasting laws. For real. This new music is tearing apart the social fabric of the United Kingdom! Isn’t it?

Some folks just don’t know what’s good for them…

Got up this morning. Checked the weather online, email. Made coffee. Tended the fire. Put side one and then side two of the Who’s Quadrophenia on my recently unearthed turntable and considered last night’s viewing.

Pirate Radio was not what I expected. What was promised did not pan out the way I hoped. It was supposed to be the classic “snobs vs. slobs” story. We got uptight white men in authority trying to maintain the status quo; on the other side of the fence our loveable, yet dimwitted rabble-rousers hell bent on bucking the system. Think Meatballs, Caddyshack and the granddaddy of ‘em all, Animal House.

Radio turned out to be a bit of a bait-and-switch.

Let’s backtrack a bit, almost noting a portent of things to come. In the original UK release, Radio was titled The Boat That Rocked. A fair enough name, with a clever play on words. That title promised, well, rock ‘n roll at its most basal. A party! A loud, awful rant ‘n rave-up against the gentry, authority figures, something.

Something is what was lacking.

Director Curtis has made a name for himself with British comedies (Love Actually, Notting Hill). His work’s pretty good. I enjoyed Notting Hill quite a lot. It’s one of my wife’s fave films, and one of Julia Roberts’ best roles I think, so he’s done some good. Not award-winning good, but still satisfying. However (here it comes), I’ve noticed his best work stems from limited casts. You know, the traditional antag/protag axis, with some fluffy actors in between to act as the peanut butter to so much jelly. For Radio, he tackles an ensemble cast. And here is where, as the Brits say, everything goes all pear-shaped.

As Stein coined, there’s no there, there. We have a great opportunity to capitalize on a bunch of askew, drunken, offbeat punters and all the quasi-drama that occurs between pints and spliffs and the latest by the Who. What we get instead is—again what the Brits call it—just naff.

I guess it pans out to a lot of wasted opportunity. For instance, Hoffman does his best Murray The K. He’s having a great time, and it’s infectious. After the fact, we know now that Hoffman died from drugs. There were “certain signs” (not unlike Brain Jones) in the characters he played that was prescient. He tended to play unlikeable characters most of the time. For example, remember his young snotlout in Scent of a Woman or incompetent cop in Nobody’s Fool, or his Oscar-winning role as Truman Capote? You don’t? Hit reverse.

Well not here. Hoffman’s channeling Alan Freed, and with an infectious—although stereotypical—beat that invites all the rock ‘n roll such a film should be lousy with. Face it, unlike most commercial pop stations these days, there is a helluva lot less necessary screaming done to whet the listeners’ appetite than…well…when we anticipate yet another AC/DC standard.

The funny thing about Curtis’ direction is from his prior films that he’s great with two-to-three camera intimacy. Aboard the Radio Rock, intimacy is shunted down the head. We got here an wild crowd of rock fans; drunken DJs, would-be-failed-to-be-dreaming pop stars, awkward straights denied a BBC seat, and stoners acting…stoned, rotating Dead and Hendrix albums with (literal) naked and unaware aplomb. And no one on the ship is remotely aware of this. Everything is compartmentalized, like a warbled installment of Monty Python. Nothing blends. It’s all scene-to-scene, camped out by a clutch of characters in search of some motivation. In short, there’s only style and no substance. Curtis fails to establish 3-D characters.

Good thing at least that Radio Rock‘s soundtrack is killer. Too bad there’s not enough of it.

Again with the bait-and-switch. I figured that Pirate was gonna be an early rock ‘n roll showcase. Hell, I half-expected Little Richard to show up with a baby grand slung around his neck. No such animal, birdman. In Hollywood fashion—and I blame none of the cast and crew—the selected music was cued up to bookend certain scenes. There was a thorough lack of spontaneity associated with rock here. However, what was selected was pretty fine. But that really has no bearing on the narrative.

Were all old school rock stations really like this? Maybe. I hope so. I know from experience that radio jocks and their itinerant family can be quite the circus. Pirate’s best feature, as well as its flaw, is its notable cast. It’s mostly a boy’s club, and not all performances are good, but they are noteworthy.

Despite the lack of cohesion and interplay with the varied cast, there are a few standouts. Bill Nighy as Quentin, the formal station manager/captain of the Radio Rock brings his usual proper, Albion regality to the crew. He quips some good one-liners, and his dry delivery is always amusing. Goofball Nick Frost is a roly-poly card. His sleazy, self-described ladies’ man Dave outstrips Hoffman, ostensibly the rowdiest of the crew. Seeing Dave in his skivvies, and later out of them is a cheap joke, but it oddly works here. It’s definitely memorable.

On the flipside, Tom Sturridge’s young Carl is the Maguffin that gives Pirate its raison d’être. He’s quite bland however, and interchangeable with any mop-topped teen actor that could’ve been plopped onto the set. His sleepy performance makes the film kinda drag (as well as thin plot and bored pacing, but more on that later), and he plays Carl with a predictably that’s not annoying, but lackluster and slow. It makes for one the oddest coming-of-age stories I’ve ever scene.

I loved Rhys Ifans’ legendary disc jockey Gavin. Old school DJs were revered almost as actual rock stars in their own right. Their on-air personas were avatars, midwives to the actual artists. It was like they were making the music. Think Wolfman Jack. Playing to the mic is really the only music actually created by DJs, and Gavin sees himself, as his listeners do, as a rock icon. Outrageous outfits, signature routine and shagging his way through groupies is very rock n’ roll, and his self-important peacock act is a hoot. In a way, Ifans uses physically comedy in the same dry way as the British use verbal humor. He’s a clown; a very lean, wiry and rigid clown, but a clown all the same.

Some technical things I dug: I liked the lilting camera work, replicating the rise and fall of the sea. A nice touch this “rocking.” The shots from all angles on the deck really give the feeling that the Radio Rock is really out there, all at sea, so to speak. These folks are rebels, cast-offs, and the only place they can find haven is out on the rolling blue. This isolation reinforces a tight, family atmosphere, cutting them away from society. Hmm. Maybe I’m looking too deeply here, having some poetic notion about pirate radio, which these guys were supposed to deliver.

However, despite the pointed freewheeling atmosphere the cast is supposed to generate, British stuffiness and its nonstop dry humor pervades the scenes. There is rigidity to Pirate that can’t be shaken, and the story’s lack of natural flow can alternately be pokey and jarring. The plot drags and wanders, sputters and stops. It’s almost like watching a sketch comedy show with only mild laughs. Although the cast is colorful the unnecessary feeling of restraint here keeps them from really cutting loose. Very un-rock n’ roll. These folks are supposed to be loveable, but for lack of even flow, it’s too forced. My complaint is what other critics complained about: as actual people we’re supposed to care about, the crew of the Radio Rock is two-dimensional. With what we expect and what we are given, there’s nothing much to hang it all together with these people. It’s all scant substance, and that’s really a shame.

Pirate upholds a lot of corny English institutions in their comedy. There isn’t any depth to Branagh’s Sir Normandy; he’s just another stuffed shirt, and his motives to crackdown on the Radio Rock is ill-defined behind the stereotypical character of “The Man.” From the cluttered scenes of how the music invades the UK’s shores and its citizens illustrates a good thing, the “bad thing” about what rock is doing is never hammed up or made clear here, which I think would’ve done a lot for the story in the tension department. This was one of the many ways which Pirate’s plot was weak and wandering.

Once again, I ride out the old warhorse called pacing. There was next to no sense of urgency to the exploits of the Radio Rock. At least not until the very end, and by then it was too late. The meandering and yet stifling storytelling made for the voyage about the Radio Rock akin to the Middle Passage. There was no glue that held the interesting characters together, the plot engaging or the supposed humorous antics between the two coming. Like I said, the movie at times was languid or worse, outright halting. This made for a slow pace, only kickstarted a sputter with the occasional period rock number (of which there was precious little).

The other night, with my overpowered, retrofitted Sansui amp, jerry-rigged to accommodate my iPod, my family and I had a very loud British Invasion dance party—almost to shake the blues in my head away from the previous night’s viewing. We were all jumping around, and I scooped up my kid (she is getting heavy, believe me) and we rocked out to “My Generation.” I lifted her up and wobbled her down to John Entwistle’s thunderous bass runs. She laughed and screamed a lot. I put the Stones’ “Satisfaction” next on rotation and tried to explain what a “signature song” was. She didn’t get it. No matter. She liked it anyway.

That’s what matters about rock. Not its history. Not the details, not really. Not even the format, be it vinyl, digital, broadcast or what have you. It’s about the songs, right there and then. I’ve often mused that humans are the only creatures that make music for reasons other than just getting laid. I mean, it helps (as my wife and mother of my child found out), but overall it’s the almighty song that gets us into a twirl. Rock n’ roll is supposed to do that, and its DJs are its messengers. After the performer, it’s the guys that get in on the airwaves (for free) that make a difference. The folks aboard the Radio Rock did their best, but I think an actual docudrama about British pirate radio would’ve been a better tribute, not a stammering comedy as it was here. Pirate’s gimmickry and lack of cohesion got real old real quick.

And I hope I die before I get old.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Relent it. Despite all its charms, it’s a rock ‘n roll movie minus the roll. Rock it has; too bad that’s just the station ID.

Stray Observations…

  • “Do you know what a lesbian is?”
  • Is Branagh supposed to look like Hitler? I figure the Brits were never subtle in their comedy (think Benny Hill).
  • “Governments loathe people being free.” Sounds like a Bill Hicks tag. And a good one.
  • I love the mod fashions, especially the ladies’. Nothing screams 60s British hip like go-go boots and vinyl dresses.
  • Otis Redding. Works every time.
  • Muddy Waters’ “I’m a Man” dropped 11 years after this movie takes place. Way to go, A&R guys.
  • Here’s another: “Won’t Get Fooled Again” wasn’t cut until five years after the events on this boat. Again A&R guys, again. Cat Stevens, too.
  • Was that Elvis Costello’s Almost Blue (1980) doing literally floating about the set? Only dorky dickheads like me would—did—notice this. Hey! You! With the beer cans! I said my apologies after the Control installment! Ow!
  • “Do what you gotta do…chicken!”
  • The kids are alright…

Next Installment…

We’re shipped out to the Mideast with Jake Gyllenhaal and his fellow Jarheads.