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Millennium Mambo

Charlotte Croft

Pirates (2021)

In 1999, when it was first heard as part of a hidden infomercial track on early pressings of Britney Spears’s “. . . Baby One More Time,” would anyone have guessed that The Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” would become a deathless classic? The answer is no. And yet, when young Terrell (Jordan Peters) is attempting to apologize to the fearsome Kelly (Rebekah Murrell) for their breakup, which may or may not have happened because he faked being in a coma to go on holiday with his mates, he recites the lyrics to her like a poem. If only the other people in the record shop where she works didn’t recognize the song. As a gimmick it’s pure silliness: Would any teenage MC from North London, one-third of the Ice Cold Crew, a rap group good enough to get play on the city’s cutthroat pirate radio stations, really be listening to the Backstreet Boys? Also no. But in Reggie Yates’s adorable “Pirates,” shown as part of this year’s SXSW Film Festival, the song both grounds the movie in its time, and sets the cheerful, childish tone.

The other members of the Ice Cold Crew are the hyperactive Kidda (Reda Elazouar) and the more serious Cappo (Elliot Edusah), briefly back from university outside London with his little yellow car. While Cappo’s been away, Kidda and Terrell have had some musical success, which has brought them to the attention of the lovely Sophie (Kassius Nelson, all twinkle in the eye). It’s Millennium Eve and obviously the only way for Terrell to impress the lovely Sophie is to get her into a club night happening in South London. But how? They’ve got no garms, no tickets and no money. But what they do have is each other – and the scenes of the lads driving around London, singing along to the radio with their whole chests, are some of the most charming depictions of masculine friendship ever shown on film. The music, Backstreet Boys aside, is spot on; and Andy Kennedy’s sound design evokes London in all its rowdy charm.

Writer-director Mr. Yates began acting as a child and has worked on some of the biggest TV shows in Britain (including as the voice of “Rastamouse,” the key part in the greatest stop-motion-animated show about a crime-fighting mouse reggae band ever made) and with “Pirates” has made a sweet movie about teenage boys on the cusp of adulthood. The interplay among the lads and the occasional self-inflicted humiliation is reminiscent of “The Inbetweeners,” but that world was of the white suburbs outside London, and “Pirates” is firmly about Londoners of color. As the lads scrabble around the city trying to get their plan together, there are sequences in a crowded barbershop, various dance clubs and a jollof rice shop staffed by the profoundly unimpressed Princess (Shiloh Coke, giving a very funny mini-masterclass of a type of Londoner rarely seen on screen). The banter between the lads as they alternate between teasing and supporting each other is charming without feeling false – although absolutely designed for younger teenagers instead of 18-year-olds – and there’s enough tension in the combination of Kidda’s immaturity, Cappo’s being stuck up and Terrell’s knack for getting into trouble to keep the action moving. At least mostly. The pacing is inconsistent, primarily because the necessary Covid restrictions couldn’t be hidden by Ash White’s editing, but there’s enough genuine emotion and charming shenanigans here that you don’t mind too much. It’s also refreshing to see a movie refuse the drugs-and-crime stereotypes found in many Black British films (compare the work of the disgraced Noel Clarke). These lads are only kids messing around, and are treated by everyone as such.

However. The grand finale involves a drive to South London to get the club before the midnight fireworks. On Millennium Eve this critic was in central London for the fireworks, in a crush of people so dense her feet were not always touching the ground. The bridges were almost entirely blocked off to traffic, when the Concorde flew over the river no one could see it because the clouds were so low, and the fireworks were a wild disappointment. So as a pedantic matter of fact the entire third act of the film would not have been possible as shown. Is it pleasant for this critic to be able to criticize the accuracy of a period film because she was at the events depicted therein? It is not. Does that criticism matter in the slightest to “Pirates’ ” overall success? Also not. Who cares about the weather when you have the chance to see the lovely Sophie again? And you never can tell – 23 years from now “Pirates” might be a deathless classic too. It’s certainly a lighthearted romp from start to finish, and sometimes that’s your one desire.


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