'Pirate Radio' Tunes Into Rock-Revolution Nostalgia

Correction Nov. 13, 2009

An earlier version of this review incorrectly attributed the authorship of "So Long, Marianne." The song was written and performed by Leonard Cohen.

W: Rhys Ifans in 'Pirate Radio'

hide captionRadio Rock Star: Rhys Ifans (front, with Tom Sturridge) plays a popular British DJ — and shameless Lothario — who arrives on a pirate-radio ship ready to rule the airwaves.

Alex Bailey/Focus Features

Pirate Radio

  • Director: Richard Curtis
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Running Time: 135 minutes

Rated R: Language, brief nudity, sexual content

With: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh and Rhys Ifans

British cinema in the new millennium? "A string of fantasies tailored to soothe domestic audiences while flogging an Americanized Britain to the United States." That's the assessment of writer Ryan Gilbey, decrying the industry's glibly middlebrow aesthetic and its canny instinct for the export market — and the filmmaker who best fits Gilbey's neat summation is the screenwriter and occasional director Richard Curtis.

Taken together, Curtis's boilerplate romantic comedies — Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually and the Bridget Jones franchise — have juiced an ailing British box office and done brisk business here in the United States, all the while propping up the American faith that the mother country is populated by effete leading men, acid-tongued English Roses and barking-mad yokels with bad hair and funny accents. These are guilty Saturday-night-pleasure movies featuring lovelorn ensembles of rumpled losers whose romantic troubles embody the haze of confused haplessness that hangs over a supposedly Cool Britannia.

And maybe, truth be told, we Brits could stand a little popcorn fare to balance the fabled miserabilism of English auteurs like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh. If nothing else, Curtis bestowed the incurably funny Bill Nighy — whose uproarious turn as a fried rocker made the otherwise pandering Love Actually more or less bearable — on American audiences.

Nighy returns to rock on, albeit in ill-fitting suit jackets and foppish shirts, in Curtis' endearingly inept new period piece Pirate Radio, playing the speechifying captain of a rickety boat anchored off the coast of Britain in 1966. It's there for the sole purpose of illegally broadcasting hits from the blossoming pop canon to a nation starving on the BBC's scant two daily hours of rock 'n' roll.

Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'Pirate Radio' i i

hide captionThe Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), inspired by a real life pirate-radio DJ who called himself Emperor Rosko, is the designated leader of the ship's bawdy crew. But the middle-aged American finds his authority challenged by the arrival of Ifans' Gavin.

Alex Bailey/Focus Features
Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'Pirate Radio'

The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), inspired by a real life pirate-radio DJ who called himself Emperor Rosko, is the designated leader of the ship's bawdy crew. But the middle-aged American finds his authority challenged by the arrival of Ifans' Gavin.

Alex Bailey/Focus Features

As it happens, I grew up listening to Radio Caroline, the pirate station that serves as the prototype for the patched-up old fishing boat in the movie, and by current standards, the music wasn't all that transgressive. Neither are the rumpled amateurs and outcasts who man the decks in Pirate Radio, getting drunk and stoned and, this being a Richard Curtis movie, looking for love where only sex can bloom.

If you're going to people a movie with stick figures, it helps to have the cream of British comic talent (and a couple of marquee Yanks for purposes of Atlantic crossover) to play them. Pirate Radio's best moments — though they aren't many — involve the hilarious face-off between two DJs with massive egos; they're played by Rhys Ifans (Hugh Grant's hopeless roommate in Notting Hill) and Philip Seymour Hoffman, while Tom Sturridge is adorably clueless as a teenage visitor sorely in need of deflowering.

Curtis' directing style might politely be described as functional, his scattershot hand-held camera wobbling gamely after the characters as they lurch around the boat, spewing gag lines and stumbling through a loose aggregation of subplots. They battle a villain politician bent on wiping them out (Kenneth Branagh, in admirable stuffed-shirt mode) while losing their hearts and other anatomical parts to an infinite supply of visiting groupies in plastic Carnaby Street dresses. The climactic stab at an oceangoing action sequence, complete with stagey sinkage, would make James Cameron weep.

In what almost passes for structure, Curtis sprinkles the action with cutaways to nurses bopping along their hospital wards or British tweens cuddling transistor radios under the blankets after lights out. Even the soundtrack — a happy nostalgia trip for those of us who came to love Dusty Springfield and The Hollies, Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin in that period — gets pressed into service to illuminate already transparent plot points. Capping a failed romance with a girl named Marianne with a snippet of "So Long, Marianne" rather gilds the lily, even by the standards of a compulsive underliner like Curtis.

That said, what comes through is the freshness and innocence of a generation's passion for the infant rock 'n' roll — an obsessive love that could cause a middle-aged has-been DJ to risk going down with the ship as he scrambles to rescue a precious LP, and that could make the rest of us believe with all our hearts that our music was not just a revelation, but a revolution. As Curtis adds in a coda, the boats and the revolution are long gone, but rock is doing quite nicely, thank you.

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