Pirate Radio – Review

An anchored comedy with a killer soundtrack


Director: Richard Curtis
Notable Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Tom Sturridge, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson

The uninformed movie-goer purchasing a ticket to Pirate Radio may be unaware that twenty minutes have been cut from its running time. After a lukewarm reception in the U.K., Focus Features shortened the film for U.S. audiences and gave it a new title (apparently The Boat That Rocked was too wordy). Even with the re-cut it feels a little uneven. It has its fun moments, but the comedy is a distant second when compared to the diverse soundtrack. Which is all you really need, since this is Richard Curtis’s love ballad to ‘60s-era rock-and-roll.

It was a different era then. Songs by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and The Who took the U.S. airwaves by storm. However in Great Britain, the citizens would get maybe three hours of rock music on the radio weekly. That’s why pirate radio stations were born; they gave the people what they wanted. The “Radio Rock” station presented in the film draws its inspiration from a number of pirate radio stations that took the waterways by storm. Quentin (Bill Nighy) is the manager of this band of malcontents; and he’s joined by a passionate group of disc jockeys, led by The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a transplant from America who wanted to show the Brits all the great music they were missing. The rest of the ship is dominated by males with their own quirks and musical tastes, including British deejay legend Gavin (Rhys Infans); Simon (Chris O’Dowd) the sad sack of the group who believes that nobody likes him; and Bob (Ralph Brown), who maintains a three-hour block in the wee hours of the morning, with the countenance of Tommy Chong.

One day the jockeys get a new bunkmate in Carl (Tom Sturridge). After getting kicked out school, Carl’s mother (Emma Thompson) sends him out to sea to spend some much needed quality time with his godfather, Quentin. If her plan was for Carl to straighten himself out, well that was a calculated error. The ship is all about those three vices our parents warned us about: sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Though, sex only comes every two weeks, when a boatload of hot-and-bothered young things boards their vessel for a little “motion in the ocean.” This proves difficult for young Carl, the lone virgin in a ship full of horndogs. So members of the Radio Rock crew make it their oceanic duty to make sure Carl loses it.

The boat is a rockin’, until somebody in the British parliament makes it his duty to shut them down. Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) doesn’t share the same musical tastes as Radio Rock. He turns his nose at guitar-strumming and rhyming lyrics, instead preferring classical music while nibbling on crumpets and drinking a spot of tea. The station has broken no laws to speak of, but leave it to government bureaucracy to find a loophole.

Having directed Love Actually, Richard Curtis has experience working with large ensembles. However, Pirate Radio is more of a collection of vignettes connected to the ship than anything else. The central theme of freedom of musical expression and those who want it stopped is clearly defined. We also get a sense of the socio-political views about rock music. Some of the vignettes work, while others falter because of forced comedy. The best bit involves Emma Thompson and her brief stint on the ship. Branagh’s depiction of Britain’s upper crust with an irksome expression to go with his slicked hair and stuffed shirts will also have you guffawing.

As the film plays out, the comedy becomes less relevant, while the music plays an important role, reflecting the moods in each scene and transition. With Carl depressed after an unsuccessful sexual encounter with a girl named Marianne, some of the radio jockeys try to cheer him up with milk and biscuits while Leonard Cohen’s “So Long Marianne” plays. When Carl finally does have sex it’s time for celebration. What better than “Dancing in the Street” by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas. Musical heavyweights The Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys are also present, but The Beatles are nowhere on the playlist.

As an ensemble piece, Bill Nighy doesn’t recapture the magic he had in Love Actually. Nick Frost (of Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) is sort of just there, and Tom Sturridge as Carl is a wet blanket. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the only one who is truly memorable. His Count character recalls his performance as Dusty in Twister, which some reading may not even remember him being present in.

Pirate Radio is not a strong comedy, but if you are paying to see a movie that embraces ‘60s rock with issues of free speech on public airwaves, this may be right for you. Go for the music and few laughs and you’ll be entertained for a few hours.


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