Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Pirate Radio and Censorship
Richard Curtis is an average screenwriter. In many respects, Curtis represents everything that is wrong with Hollywood. Know for such deeply mediocre films as Brigit Jones Diary, and Love Actually, it is no wonder film critics were ready to pan Pirate Radio. As a film critic, I will acknowledge that Pirate Radio was no masterpiece. Chris Knight of the National Post derided the plot as "33% teen-virgin comedy, 33% '60s greatest hits and 33% Screw The Man!" This is a fairly accurate assessment. Moreover, the characters were little more than a motley collection of cliched stereotypes of the 60s. Pirate Radio is pretty average from a cinematic point of view.
While I do not typically endorse generic Hollywood movies, I actually feel compelled to do so in this case. The value of the film lays not in it's style (or lack thereof), but in it's substance. Though the story is far from true, it serves as a timely reminder of just how tumultuous the struggle for free speech has been. While the British government didn't actually ban rock music, it certainly was not beyond the realm of possibility. Recall that in 1965 the BBC refused to play the song My Generation by The Who. They went on to ban many Beatles songs in the next few years.
Though we have come a long way from banning the Beatles, music censorship is far from dead. As recently as 1990, twenty-one U.S. states introduced bills that prohibit the sale of records containing "lyrics that are violent, sexually explicit or perverse". Following the Columbine shootings in 1999, several Marilyn Manson concerts were cancelled, since he was seen as an influence on the perpetrators. Censorship is a constant threat to the music industry.
What makes Pirate Radio more important than other anti-censorship movies is that Curtis seems to acknowledge the pervasiveness of the censorship threat. It is pretty standard for such films to adopt a very triumphantalist spirit, assuming that the battle has been won. In short, they are period pieces. Pirate Radio eshewed this tendency, and consciously created a bridge to modern music with it's touching montage to the last 40 years of rock music at the end (no, this does not count as a spoiler). The stock villain of the film reminds us that if the government doesn't like something, they can make it illegal. This is as true today as it was in 1966.
While the film eshewed shades of grey in favour of the conventional good vs. evil motif, it was entirely justifiable. Every now and than it is healthy to reflect on just how fragile individual liberty is. Governments have no incentive to guard individual liberty. It is only through vigilance that we are able to guard our freedoms from over zealous legislators. It is refreshing to see a movie that unabashedly reminds us of this.