For Richard Curtis, British writer and director of the romantic swoon fests “Love, Actually” and “Notting Hill,” “Pirate Radio” marks a return to his roots as comedy writer of such slapstick films as “Bean” and the television series Blackadder. In his new movie, Curtis targets the 1960s glory days of rock’n’roll and the British government’s ban on pop music broadcasting. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was and is a government run enterprise and it may come as a shock to American audiences that radio programs could be completely shut down by government drones. The response to this censorship was a group of ships anchored in international waters off the British coast broadcasting the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones and other now legendary rock groups 24 hours a day.
When it listens to the music, “Pirate Radio” rocks. Curtis has framed his story as the always relevant conflict between individual liberty and government oppression. Scenes of working class Britons huddled over their transistors listening to pirate broadcasts makes the point. A nautical group of dissolute d.j.s three miles out to sea fights the war for those turned on by rock’n’roll against a government that has labeled it obscene. Unfortunately for the movie, the d.j.s spinning the vinyl disks of musical freedom are a group of social misfits less interesting than the music they play.
The ever reliable Bill Nighy as Quentin owns the pirate boat while Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Count of Cool and the only American aboard leads the band of broadcasting brothers. His competitor in the category of cool, played by Rhys Ifans, is a Pied Piper in a purple hat adored by female listeners all over the country. Their rivalry, while brief, energizes a story that spends too much time talking about itself.
Tacked onto the main plot is a coming of age story about a teenager named Carl (Tom Sturridge) who discovers sex and finds his father among the mixed bag aboard the boat. The most interesting thing about Carl is his larger than life mother Charlotte, a flamboyant diva played with gusto by Emma Thompson.
Curtis had a cool idea and if the characters had been as interesting as the records they play, it might have worked. But despite the music, even the cream of the British acting establishment can’t keep this pirate’s boat afloat.
See you at the movies!