Pirate Radio

Pirate Radio

2009, R, 116 min. Directed by Richard Curtis. Starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Sturridge, Talulah Riley, January Jones, Emma Thompson.

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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Richard Curtis Films
About Time
Love Actually maestro wants to make you cry with this romantic dramedy.

Kimberley Jones, Nov. 1, 2013

Love Actually
This merry skein of loves lost and found in holiday-season London is written and directed by the Four Weddings and a Funeral scribe.

Marc Savlov, Nov. 7, 2003

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
Penguins
Chilly nature documentary has a cuddly heart that's perfect for young animal lovers

April 19, 2019

The Chaperone
The fascinating true story of Louise Brooks falls out of focus in this anachronistic fiction

April 12, 2019

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

Pirate Radio, Richard Curtis, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Sturridge, Talulah Riley, January Jones, Emma Thompson

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Updates for SXSW 2019

All questions answered (satisfaction not guaranteed)

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle