Tethered to reality by only a slender thread, Pirate Radio quickly cuts loose and floats off into its own imaginary layer of the Earth's atmosphere, where only good-hearted, pleasant-thinking, die-hard romantics can survive. Welcome home, Richard Curtis, where have you been?
Writer/director Curtis rose to fame on the basis of his screenplay for Four Weddings and a Funeral, featuring an ensemble of quirky yet appealing men and women chasing love and happiness, followed, notably, by his script for Notting Hill, but he's been writing off-kilter comedy sketches and episodic television for many years. Pirate Radio proves that his gift for writing witty one-liners and creating funny situations remains intact. His skills as a film director and shaper of material are a little more fuzzy and undefined, however.
As with Love, Actually, his previous directorial effort, Pirate Radio (AKA The Boat That Rocked) is filled with episodes that feel randomly assembled, knit together by proximity and happenstance more than narrative necessity. For all the laughter and positive feelings that Pirate Radio generates, it's a lightweight treatment of a potentially heavyweight subject.
Philip Seymour Hoffman leads an ensemble cast that includes Bill Nighy, Nick Frost, Rhys Ifans, and Kenneth Branagh, with cameos from Emma Thompson and January Jones. Hoffman plays The Count, an American DJ for Rock Radio, a station that broadcasts from an old ship off the coast of Britain in 1965. The opening titles inform us that no British radio station played rock 'n' roll music in the early 60s, so musical rebels took to the high seas and half the population of Britain tuned in! Cue montage of happy dancing grocers, students, and nurses.
As depicted in the movie, this may have been rebellious but it was not illegal, since no British laws were broken (and the broadcast ships were in the North Sea, beyond British jurisdiction, anyway). Nor was it without renumeration, as advertisers were only too happy to reach millions of listeners. Still, pirate radio outraged the British government, in the person of the stiff, stuffy Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), who rails against the rock 'n' rolling stations for their "dirty irresponsible commercialism and low morals."
Sir Alistair promises to get the pirate radio stations off the air within 12 months, and enlists the assistance of the dour, officious Twatt (Jack Davenport) to find a loophole of some kind or, failing that, to figure out how to frame a law that will accomplish his goal. Twatt is mostly around so that Sir Alistair can call him by his name: "Good job, Twatt!" "What's that, Twatt?" "Odd name, Twatt!" It's silly, but that's the movie.
On the pirate ship, it's a party 24/7, filled with sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll. (The drugs get short shrift.) Curtis constructs multiple scenes around sex, including two with switched partners. The disc jockeys on board aren't particularly attractive, but they still attract ladies who are drawn to the men behind the sexy voices on their radio ... all except poor Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), the cook and token lesbian.
Since the ship is anchored at sea, the men have to rely on boats bringing supplies and groupies every so often, and the plot device allows characters to board and depart as needed. Early on, young Carl (Tom Sturridge) arrives, the godson of station owner Quentin (Bill Nighy). Carl is in search of his father, who may be on board ship, but mostly he's around so the other salty old disc jockeys can try to help / hinder his attempts to lose his virginity. It's a dusty sub-plot, but that's the movie.
Another boat brings the suave, deep-talking Gavin (Rhys Ifans), returning from America to duel The Count for supremacy among the outrageous DJs. As The Count, Philip Seymour Hoffman lends his lively presence, but isn't required to do much other than mutter and deliver an occasional impassioned line about the importance of freedom. I kept remembering Hoffman as legendary rock writer Lester Bangs in Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, but The Count is nowhere near as inspirational.
Pirate Radio made me think of other movies about DJs, like Talk to Me, with Don Cheadle as Petey Greene, an important figure in Washington, D.C. radio in the 60s, or Private Parts, with Howard Stern as himself, an important figure in national radio in the 90s. Both films were impassioned biographies based on real-life events, one more dramatic, the other more comedic. Both films connected their characters to the period and made clear why they were so driven to share their lives on the air. Similarly, movies like Almost Famous and High Fidelity made explicit why their main characters were so in love with music, the way that great songs can influence a generation, or at least selected people in that generation.
It's perhaps unfair to expect Pirate Radio to be that ambitious. It's a silly little comedy with a generous view of mankind, and that's a rare thing nowadays. The performances are all fine; I especially enjoyed Rhys Darby (manager Murray from Flight of the Conchords) as the lovably unlikable Angus, Chris O'Dowd as the unlucky Simon, Tom Brooke as brickheaded Thick Kevin, and Ralph Brown as the bearded Bob; Brown has wonderful facial expressions. Lovely Talulah Riley makes a good impression as a sexy young thing. Except for pacing issues that dog the film clear through to an interminably extended final 25 minutes, it's a perfectly serviceable party picture that's intended to invoke nostalgia rather than meaningful reflection.
After all, there's nothing inherently wrong with using the Kinks' "Lazy Afternoon" to underscore a lazy afternoon or the Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together" to accompany a young man's deflowering, but they're obvious, easy choices, which is a mark of the movie as a whole. I can't help wishing Curtis had dug deeper into the goldmine that was British radio in the mid '60s. He's content to pick up a few nuggets lying on the surface, which make for a pretty bauble, but nothing truly valuable.