Richard Curtis is a bit of a cheeky monkey.
Having written British quirk comedies like Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Love Actually (which was his directorial debut), Curtis has specialized in making off-color movies that are always more wholesome than they want to be. His second film as a director, Pirate Radio, is a tune-filled anthem to the renegade rock jockeys of the 1960’s who would broadcast continual music from off-shore boats functioning as floating radio stations.
Released in Britain as The Boat That Rocked, the film’s strongest feature is the notable cast of oddballs it manages to cram onto the boat. More impressive are the off-kilter character actors called in to portray them; Philip Seymour Hoffman is the lone American, an overweight, feisty instigator known as ‘The Count’, Nick Frost the salacious Dave, the incomparable Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans show up as Quentin and Gavin, men who could be father and son if the plot wanted to go there. All of them are fired up and ready to act, and they deliver a delightful bit of tomfoolery amongst all the music and half-hearted speeches about free expression. Even when the movie flounders–which is often–they keep on rocking.
Pirate Radio has been inspired by Radio Caroline, a British station that did indeed buck the standards of the British government and did so by staying outside of territorial waters and broadcasting its signal back home where it was greeted by a large listening audience. Curtis sets the movie up as a testament to standing up in the face of a forceful and overbearing establishment. These days, it feels like every third movie is one of those, so it isn’t surprising to find that the only time Curtis can really muster the energy to bring that point home is during the musical montages that show people around Britain merrily dancing and bopping to the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. He gets distracted, and ends up spending most of his time with the crew, especially Nighy as Quint and Hoffman’s Count. This turns out to be a good thing. When Curtis gets lost, he gets by with a little help from his friends.
Although Pirate Radio’s protagonist is the fresh-faced Carl (Tom Sturridge), a young man sent to the boat by his mother, presumably to stay out of trouble, the film belongs to the British cast who benefit from being crammed into close quarters and forced to riff on and off of one another frequently. I enjoyed these interactions well enough, but found the film itself to be haphazardly constructed and as written I wasn’t always sure what it was going for.
Back on the mainland, Parliament searches for a way to shut down Pirate Radio, and as led by Kenneth Branaugh, the whole lot come off as bureacrats less believable then the one-dimensional spoofs in Gilliam’s Brazil. This entire subplot is tedious and forced, and it stalls the film everytime we return to it. In addition, a few odd interludes simply don’t work–one cruelly involving Chris O’Dowd’s character and his new wife and the other uncomfortably documenting Dave and Carl trying to trick a young woman into sleeping with the latter.
I think the cast and crew are trying to stand up and honor the sort of personal freedoms they believe these men were fighting for. It’s hard, because most of the time what we see are a bunch of aging rock-heads smoking pot and looking for some ‘free love’. Curtis can deliver the mainstream melodrama as well as anyone (I adore Love Actually) but here he’s got a lame-duck screenplay.
Ultimately, I wanted to like the film more than I did. It has good parts, for sure, and the soundtrack is particularly strong. In fact, as a music-centric film, one could argue it works. As a story it needs more substance, as a comedy it needs more laughs, and as a drama it needs to give at least one character something more to care about than the music they are playing on the radio. But, as a well-oiled peek back to a time when censorship was wielded like a battle-ax, and even guys hanging out playing records on the airwaves was a form of dangerous rebellion, Pirate Radio finds it can give some satisfaction.