Andy Bockelman: ‘Pirate Radio’ loses reception, but effective in heart
December 2, 2009
2.5 out of 4 stars
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans and Kenneth Branagh
The comedy "Pirate Radio" will mean something different to everyone who sees it. Depending on what you're expecting, you may applaud, sing along with the hits or just chuckle.
Then again, you may feel seasick if you want it to be something that it isn't.
If you're young, hip or at all aware of the biggest music of the day in 1966 Britain, odds are you're probably listening to Radio Rock.
Broadcasting out of a ship anchored in the North Sea, the pirate radio station plays strictly rock 'n' roll all day, every day, flouting every rule handed down by the government. Ranging from manager Quentin (Bill Nighy) to American on-air personality, The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the crew and disc jockeys of Radio Rock are dedicated to never letting the spirit of their favorite music go away.
But the British Parliament is not interested in putting up with what they consider the pornography of the airwaves, and if political crusader Minister Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) has his way, the boat's residents — as well as operators of other off-shore radio stations — will be taken off the air for good with the Marine Offences Act. Still, the Radio Rock staff isn't about to pull the vinyl off the turntable willingly.
The ensemble cast bonds well in what is a notably collaborative effort. If you have to pick a lead character, the closest thing would be Carl (Tom Sturridge), the youngest and newest member of the Radio Rock crew, whose mother (Emma Thompson) sends him on the boat after he gets kicked out of school.
Makes sense to me.
Nighy is the most reticent of a clique full of rowdies, including Nick Frost as tubby ladies man Dr. Dave, Rhys Ifans as licentious legend Gavin, and Hoffman as the lone Yank and most headstrong DJ of them all. There are plenty more people making up the crew, such as Carl's numbskull cabin-mate Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke) and largely silent DJ Midnight Mark (Tom Wisdom), but they fade into the background too easily.
The same can't be said of Branagh as self-imposed censor Dormandy, who's constructed as a ridiculously humorless fascist, but the actor gets the job done.
There's not much room for grounded reality in the fictitious tale of "The Boat That Rocked" — the movie's original overseas title — very loosely based on the issues of British radio licensing during the '60s.
Writer/director Richard Curtis only uses this as a miniscule part of the story in his follow-up to "Love Actually," allowing for the shenanigans of the Radio Rock crew to entertain. The cast does well in this respect, getting laughs handily as they banter back and forth while hopping in and out of bed, and they create hullabaloo for their listeners by uttering the dreaded F-word for the first time in British radio history.
What a momentous occasion.
And of course, there's no shortage in the music of the era, including the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, the Kinks, the Turtles, the Who and a myriad other acts.
But, in all this good-natured fun, there's something missing: a point.
The story drifts along as aimlessly as the Radio Rock boat, never reaching the sense of substance that it needs. However, this works in a way, as the fortitude and rebelliousness of rock are expressed offhandedly through the leisurely pacing and excessive list of characters.
If there's one nugget of truth that "Pirate Radio" extols, it's that art, be it in music, film or any other medium, doesn't have to be perfect. Curtis does as he wishes in his movie, and he doesn't feel the need to satisfy anyone else's criteria.
And that rocks.