Laughing So Hard

Phillip Seymour Hoffman as "The Count"

Phillip Seymour Hoffman as "The Count"

At one point during our viewing of Pirate Radio at the new Americana theaters in Glendale last weekend, I was laughing so hard I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I literally had to take several deep breaths so I could push myself back in my seat and resume watching, lest I miss the next clever comedic turn or touching moment.

Next to me, my wife Sharon was holding her sides, again quite literally, and looking at me in absolute glee. We’d picked a couple of duds lately—The Box and Paranormal Activity, whose single virtue was that they did eventually end—so this choice was a wonderful change of pace. Around us, the nearly full theater was rollicking with laughter, not just at one particular scene or another, but time after time in a delightful two hours plus.

So, right, it’s a wonderful, heart-warming movie, and as much as the LA Progressive does such things, we give it four stars, a kiss and a hug and a pat on the behind, and recommend that you see it. But I think we were touched with something more that night.

Rebellion in the North Sea
The story behind “Pirate Radio” builds on an actual fleet of 20 or more ships ringing Great Britain during the 1960s to circumvent stuffy BBC restrictions by broadcasting the latest rock and roll music to an avid audience of perhaps 20 million Brits—24/7, we say today. But a documentary, it’s not. As Susan Carpenter says in the Los Angeles Times: “…anyone who goes to see the film hoping to learn about the realities of illegally broadcasting music to millions of idolizing fans from the cold and rocking waters of a ship are likely to be disappointed by everything but the soundtrack.”

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Around this bit of history, Richard Curtis, the film’s writer and director, threads a wry and improbable coming-of-age story of a young lad who is banished to one of these pirate radio boats with its band of long-haired disc jockeys as punishment for his youthful indiscretions—a bit like those boot camps some parents send their kids to nowadays to make them change their errant ways, though, of course, decidedly not. Still, however masterfully acted and directed, it’s just a story and, by itself, not a particularly intricate and engaging one—at least not one strong enough for the movie to be playing in my head these several days later.

Rock and Roll Forever
A few days after we saw Pirate Radio, I happened to catch a few minutes of a music award show on television—the American Music Awards, I think. The bit I caught showed a platoon of attractive, black-clad, mostly black women stomping through the audience and up onto the stage, thrusting their pelvises forward in a most unsexy fashion, singing backup behind a tall blonde engaged in similar gyrations and singing what sounded like a martial dirge.

As I changed the channel, I wondered if forty years from now if anyone would make a delightful, nostalgic movie about this generation’s music. Sure, I know it’s unreasonable to put so much weight on a single television performance, and there are lots of today’s performers—Norah Jones, John Legend, Alicia Keyes, to name a few—who I listen to all the time, with my wife and now 16-year-old daughter Nea, and alone. Still, I wonder if today’s music has defined and captured this generation, as did the music in Pirate Radio for those of us who came of age in the 1960s. Maybe that’s an unreasonable expectation. Maybe no music and its time will ever have that kind of sweet and lasting marriage anytime soon.

But more than simply those most memorable songs echoing through my brain days later, it is the spirit of those times that Pirate Radio brought back that’s still with me.

Young at Heart
Maybe it’s because I’ll soon be 62 and, as our friend and colleague Charley James recently reminded us, life doesn’t go on forever. And with all the hours Sharon and I put into LA Progressive around our day jobs, we’re both feeling every one of our years.

Maybe it’s because cutbacks, layoffs, and grinding financial pressures have made my day job an increasingly snarky place to work, with folks posturing on email and plotting behind closed doors, sadly making finger-pointing and bad-mouthing the order of the day.

Maybe it’s because nationally it appears that we’re sending more troops to Afghanistan as if Vietnam never happened, solving our financial crisis by making the world once again a safe place for Wall Street bankers, and trying to figure out just how little health care reform we actually must enact so we can congratulate ourselves for making “change we can believe in.”

I know the world didn’t change the way we thought it would when we were 17- and 18-year old kids in 1965, sitting on somebody’s living room floor on the Upper West Side, listening to the Byrds sing “The Bells of Rhymney,” passing jugs of wine and whatever else from hand to hand, trying like the kid in Pirate Radio to catch the eye of the pretty St. Luke’s nursing student sitting cattycorner.

Not long ago, through the wonders of the Google Machine, I learned that my friend from those times—the one fellow Vietnam combat veteran I knew on campus—took his family wealth, his Ivy League education, his honorable service as a Marine, and turned them into arrests for drug smuggling and bank robbery, a prison escape, and a fatal heart attack at 56 crossing the road in Waycross, Georgia, still apparently on the lam from the law.

Dick Price

That and a hundred stories tell me the world didn’t turn out as we thought it would way back when. But Pirate Radio reminds me that there was a moment in the 1960s, however brief and illusory, when the possibilities for adventure and progress and justice seemed endless. For that moment, the world was our oyster. Now, as too often I taste just the sand, I wonder if there might be a way outside the movie house to recapture that hopeful and rebellious spirit. Let’s hope there is.

In any case, if only to leaven the political grind on our pages, we’re thinking of including more coverage of cultural events in LA Progressive if they have at least the aroma of progressive politics and social justice about them. Let us know what you think of that idea and direct us to writers who might want to regularly contribute articles in that vein.

- Dick Price, Editor, LA Progressive

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