Directed by Richard Curtis. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Sturridge, Talulah Riley, January Jones, Emma Thompson. (2009, R, 116 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 13, 2009
Despite a title change from The Boat That Rocked to Pirate Radio, this British import exudes about as much outlaw swagger as Tom DeLay in a dance competition. Forget about historical veracity in which this film’s offshore radio broadcasting ship Radio Rock is a fictional stand-in for the actual operation, Radio Caroline, which was shut down by the British government in 1967. The politics of Pirate Radio never get any weightier than its general oppositional tone of Us against the Man. And when it comes to the old sex, drugs, and rock & roll equation, writer-director Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually) pretty much leaves out the middle entity: drugs. However, the biggest problem with Pirate Radio is its lax narrative structure. The film is a series of episodic scenes which spotlight a host of characters who, without narrative material, become a mere collection of quirks, costumes, and gestures. This is all the more frustrating because the performances are good. Hoffman more or less reprises his Lester Bangs schtick from Almost Famous: always good but nothing new. He’s the radio station’s American import and main attraction, a cool cat dubbed the Count. We expect fireworks to occur with the return of Gavin (Ifans), a Carnaby Street dandy and babe magnet who was the station’s previous top deejay. But nothing passes between these two apart from a couple of stony glares. Nighy also cuts a memorable figure as the station’s onboard owner. As much as there is a story, it takes shape with young recruit Carl (Sturridge), who comes aboard after getting kicked out of boarding school. Carl is the audience’s surrogate, through whose eyes we experience the waning months of the pirate-radio experience. We meet all the deejays along with Carl and witness the loopy merriment that occurs when a dozen or so guys are locked up together on a boat. Women are shipped in every couple of weeks, and there’s plenty of shagging, one wedding, and a lesbian cook thrown in for good measure. Branagh, however, is drydocked with his role as the minister tasked with finding a legal means to shut down the offshore broadcasters. Whenever Curtis cuts back to Branagh’s landlubber scenes, the film loses energy and the actor’s consternation and efforts seem an effete stereotype. The ending of Pirate Radio turns into a poor man’s Titanic, made even worse by all the valedictory speeches about the future of rock & roll not going down with the ship. But it’s true: One thing the Man can’t stop is rock & roll. Pirate Radio is awash in nonstop music. (I’m guessing that a fair amount of the film’s budget was spent on music rights.) You can almost shut your eyes and be transported back to 1966 (minus a few glaring exceptions where rights must not have been conferred). With your eyes closed, you can at least pretend that you’re listening to commercial-free radio.