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The Lens: 'Pirate Radio' scuttled?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 4, 2009 - I sometimes feel sorry for contemporary film editors. Once they were considered a crucial part of a film team, making decisions that moved a production onto its eventual release. Now they are too often treated as hired hands, brought in not to shepherd the original footage into a final version but simply to fulfill the whims of indecisive filmmakers for whom the old adage "We'll save it in the editing room" has been replaced by "We'll save it for the DVD."

It seems that many contemporary films now play a kind of editorial tug-of-war, with producers rushing to cut films if they don't elicit enough enthusiasm at preview screenings, then putting the extracted footage back to provide "enhanced value" to the DVD release. Somewhere along the way, the theatrical release can become a casualty of indecision. Should it have too much - or too little?

Richard Curtis' film "The Boat That Rocked," released in England to a weak critical and commercial response last spring, is one such casualty, an ambitious film that might have been better but now finds itself in a kind of limbo, a half-life between the director's desires and the still-evolving final product. Curtis' film is both the kind of sprawling ensemble piece he's known for (he wrote "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Love Actually") and a nostalgic effort to recreate the energy of Britain's "pirate" radio stations of the 1960s.

The rough cut of the film was around three hours long, but finally trimmed to a more manageable two hours and 15 minutes. (The deleted scenes are included in the UK DVD release, of course.) When it opens in America next week, in addition to being retitled "Pirate Radio," it will be 20 minutes shorter than the version seen on British screens. (According to someone at Focus Features, the U.S. distributor, "it will be a different film" - hence the name change.)

So it's a stand-off: If we are to take the deleted scenes and lengthier rough cut as evidence, we can imagine that Curtis' ideal version would be longer than 135 minutes. For the producers and/or the U.S. distributor, the answer to the film's lukewarm reception is to go the other direction and trim the film down by 10 percent. So is there too much going on in "The Boat That Rocked" - or not enough?

Oddly enough, the answer is: both.

"Pirate Radio" is an episodic and highly romanticized (read: historically inaccurate) account of British broadcasting in the 1960s, when the government-controlled BBC was the only authorized voice on the radio but a handful of unsanctioned stations broadcast from nearby ships in the Pacific. In Curtis' version, these pirate stations were harassed and suppressed by the straight-laced Powers That Be, but unleashed the wave of Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll that eventually liberated Britain from its gray postwar torpor.

The film depicts one such outfit, as seen through the eyes of a young man sent to intern on board when he drops out of school. (His angry mother, we are told, is a friend of the ship's owner, and her parental concern is somewhat contradicted by her own past.) As months go by, his eyes are opened by the eccentric spirits who operate the station and he undergoes a familiar coming of age, courtesy of the aforementioned S.,D.,R.&R. Meanwhile, the British government, courtesy of a stern Kenneth Branagh and his underling, a civil servant named Twatt (OK, Curtis doesn't always reach that high for a joke), plot their downfall, only to be outwitted by the rebellious highjinks of the floating deejays.

The film skips along from one vignette to the next and is often very funny, aided by excellent performances from Bill Nighy as the station owner, Philip Seymour Thomas as a wooly American DJ (think of a grubbier but more earnest version of "WKRP in Cincinatti's" Johnny Fever), and Rhys Ilfans as his English rival/counterpart. But as the film rolls into what eventually becomes an uneven, unsteady climax, something seems to be missing. First,last-minute character revelations come out of nowhere. Hordes of fans are expected to be identifiable, although they've only been barely glimpse in short montage segments.

And then, despite having happily buzzed its way through one short vignette after another, Curtis throws the film - at least in its UK version - completely out of step with a climactic ship sequence - a ship wreck, no less - that drags on for about 30 minutes, offers not one but two melodramatic last-minute rescues and is as overdone and cliche-ridden as the rest of the film is brisk. (Add to its sins the most egregious use of Cat Stevens' "Father and Son" that you could ever imagine.)

But a funny thing happened as the film came to its rather soggy finish. During the end credits, Curtis tosses in a few random scenes of the disc jockeys at work, small bits that didn't make the final cut.

The strange thing is that though they aren't of much importance to the narrative, they add a lot to our understanding of the characters and their relationships. If nothing else, they offer a hint of character elements that had been alluded to in the film but never explained. And they also show how much Curtis and his performers were enjoying their roles even in relatively insignificant moments like these. Despite the overkill of the last 30 minutes (which could use tighter editing), the outtakes hint at a better, longer film, one that might have allowed the cast a little breathing room to play against each other and let their characters settle in without having to rush right off into the next sequence.

I'm not calling for an "extended cut" (though such a thing seems like an inevitable part of a film's life cycle these days) or claiming that an unheralded masterpiece was butchered and left on the cutting room floor. Curtis and his producers made their choices and - U.S. editing and future DVD tinkering notwithstanding - released their film to the public.

It's ironic that its strongest elements - a lively sense of pop music in the 1960s and a strong ensemble cast - work to cancel each other out. The former sets the film's pace, but the latter could have benefited from a little more time to breathe.

The Lens is the blog of Cinema St. Louis, hosted by the Beacon.