Pirate Radio (United Kingdom/Germany/United States/France, 2009)

November 10, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Pirate Radio Poster

Despite arriving on North American screens mid-way through the month of November with a cast that features three previous Academy Award nominees (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kenneth Branagh, Emma Thompson) and a similarly honored writer/director (Richard Curtis), Pirate Radio is not being touted as Oscar bait. In fact, it comes to the U.S. with a less-than-stellar pedigree, having received lukewarm reviews during its U.K. theatrical run earlier this year and having subsequently been re-cut at Focus Features' request. The result, although uneven, is generally enjoyable, especially for those who attend with the right mindset. Character and narrative are secondary concerns for a movie primarily driven to provide a Valentine to '60s rock-and-roll.

It's 1966 and the young people of Great Britain are less-than-happy with the domestic radio situation, which is almost all talk and news (with a little jazz thrown in for good measure). Into this breach come the offshore pirate radio stations, the most infamous of which is "Radio Rock," a 24/7 rock-and-roll operation that saturates the airwaves from a ship anchored in international waters and boasts a listening audience north of 20 million. Radio Rock is the brainchild of Quentin (Bill Nighy) and features some of the best known disc jockeys, including an American known only as The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman); the world-renowned Gavin (Rhys Ifans); Bob (Ralph Brown), the 3-6 a.m. guy whom almost no one has seen; and Simon (Chris O'Dowd), who's convinced no one likes him. Into this setting comes Carl (Tom Sturridge). After being kicked out of school, Carl's mom (Emma Thompson) sends him to spend some time on the Radio Rock ship under the watchful eye of his godfather, Quentin. Life aboard the ship is all sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll (although the sex only arrives once every two weeks when a boatload of women arrive for overnight stays). Carl, a virgin, is at something of a disadvantage when it comes to the opposite sex, but various members of the crew set out to help him remedy the situation. Meanwhile, on land, cabinet member Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), announces his determination to shut down Radio Rock. Since what they're doing is breaking no current laws, he hires the unfortunately named Twatt (Jack Davenport) to find a loophole that he can turn into a noose.

For the most part, Pirate Radio, called The Boat that Rocked during its U.K. run, is a series of poorly connected vignettes about life aboard the ship during a time when the social views of the government were at odds with those of its younger citizens. As Dormandy and Twatt seek to stifle Radio Rock, we are shown a cross-section of British people enjoying the music in different settings. Some of the episodes work (such as the visit to the ship by Carl's mother); others exhibit forced comedy that really isn't funny (Carl's attempts to lose his virginity, the "duel" between The Count and Gavin). The characters are mostly likable but none exhibits much depth. The best comedic elements derive from Kenneth Branagh's satirization of '60s stuffed shirt politicians. At times, it's as if he's channeling John Cleese in the way he sends them up. He also has some great lines about the role of government.

Ultimately, however, Pirate Radio is more about the music than it is about anything else. Hardly a scene goes by without at least one classic rock song being played. There are reportedly about 60 clips (ranging from a few bars to full singles) in the movie, which makes it a pretty comprehensive survey of the music of the era, with artists ranging as far and wide as Dusty Springfield, Herb Alpert, Cream, The Who, Cat Stevens, The Beach Boys, and The Moody Blues. Without such a rich and diverse soundtrack, there's little doubt that Pirate Radio would have been considerably less endearing and enjoyable. Of the features on Richard Curtis' resume (he wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral and Bridget Jones' Diary and wrote and directed Love, Actually), this is arguably the least substantive.

Some of the marketing material is hyping the "based on a true story" aspect of the movie although, in fact, this was always intended to tell the tale of a fictional pirate radio boat. Some aspects are loosely based on historical events and some of the characters are composites of real people, but Pirate Radio should not be mistaken for anything other than a creation of a writer's imagination. The distributors apparently would like us to believe these people actually existed and Radio Rock occupies an almost mythical position in recent British pop history.

Films with large ensemble casts rarely afford opportunities for individual standout performances, and this is no exception. Bill Nighy is amusing but hardly reaches the heights he scaled for his small role in Love, Actually. Philip Seymour Hoffman is very good in what may be his most limited non-cameo since Twister. Tom Sturridge, who is the closest Pirate Radio has to a lead, is a little on the limp side. Those who appreciate trivia will note that this is the first movie in which both Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson have both appeared since the dissolution of their marriage (although they do not share any scenes).

Two obvious cinematic references came to mind while I was watching Pirate Radio. The first, Pump up the Volume, also deals with issues of censorship and free speech over the public airwaves and, as is the case here, it sets up a radio pirate as the champion of a group of individuals whose voices and opinions are often ignored by those in power. The second and more unfortunate reference is Titanic. The scenes with a boat sinking in the North Sea are simply too familiar for the association not to be made.

One of the biggest complaints about the U.K. release of the film was that it's too long and, even though the American version is shorter by 15 minutes, it still seems like there's too little content for such a robust running time. Nevertheless, the music is great, the comedy provides occasional laughs, and there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the movie. Distilled to its essence, it represents a respectable diversion.

Pirate Radio (United Kingdom/Germany/United States/France, 2009)

Run Time: 2:00
U.S. Release Date: 2009-11-13
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1