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Pirate Radio (A Movie Review)

Updated: Apr 20, 2023


Starring Tom Sturridge, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Talulah Riley, January Jones, Rhys Darby, Chris O'Dowd and Emma Thompson.

Screenplay by Richard Curtis.

Directed by Richard Curtis.

Distributed by Focus Features. 129 minutes. Rated R.

Although Richard Curtis is best known in the US as the king of high-brow romantic comedies (Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill both number in my personal list of the best films ever), the screenwriter (and sometime director) considers himself more of a frustrated rocker.

Therefore, for his second film directing job, the romance takes a back seat to the music. There are a few subplots about sex and love, but women are rather an afterthought in this boys' club movie. In fact, the great majority of this film takes place on a boat where there is only one woman – and she is a lesbian – though several other women pop onboard just long enough to get our guys' hearts racing.

Pirate Radio tells a very distinctively British story. In the 1960s, during the heyday of Beatlemania and the British Explosion, English radio was monopolized by the BBC, who at the time would only program one hour of popular music a week. Therefore a slew of "pirate" stations popped up – many run on boats just outside the international border line – which played hit music for a nation of rock-starved fans.

Radio Rock seems to be mostly based on a real outlaw channel called Radio Caroline, though Curtis has said it is more a fictionalization of quite a few similar groups. (The film has already played in England and other countries with the punny but rather less generic title The Boat That Rocked.)

There isn't all that much story here – just a bunch of guys living in close quarters and the hi-jinks they get into.

The DJs are a bunch of types – but entertaining types. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the passionate American rule breaker. Nick Frost is a heavy lothario. Rhys Ifans is the hipster superstar. Rhys Darby is a slightly naive sort. Chris O'Dowd is the slimy one. Tom Brooke plays the slightly dumb, but deceptively perceptive DJ. Ralph Brown is the slightly older music purist who is so into his job that he is almost never seen by his fellow shipmates.

Bill Nighy is the owner of the station, an older businessman who is trying to straddle questionable legality of his enterprise with a long-felt need to keep the peace.

The storyline – what little of one there is – turns around Carl (Tom Sturridge, channeling Curtis regular star Hugh Grant – who is too old for the role now) a handsome but terribly shy student who is sent by his mother to live on the boat with his godfather Nighy. Carl learns about life, women, drugs, rock... and he becomes convinced that the father he never met is also on the boat.

Back on the mainland, a cartoonishly evil politician (played by Kenneth Branagh) vows to bring down the pirates. This part is the one part of the movie that really doesn't work... Branagh is chewing scenery mightily here and the section is written so broadly that his main hatchet man is named Twatt.

However, the government scenes are relatively short, usually leading back to some eccentric male bonding amongst the jocks.

In the meantime, the film percolates with wall-to-wall rock and pop. Literally, this may be one of the best movie soundtracks I've ever heard – though I do have call music geek Curtis for using quite a few songs which came out after 1966, the date when this film was set.

None of it is very deep, but most of it is pretty fun.

Curtis is technically very skilled as a director. He paces things well, sets up shots right and is able to convey the world of the film. Yet, perhaps it is not the best idea for him to direct his own screenplays, for the simple reason that sometimes it seems he needs an outside editor. Four Weddings and Notting Hill were nearly perfect - there were no superfluous scenes. However in this film as well as his directorial debut Love Actually, it seems that director Curtis is not willing to say no to some of screenwriter Curtis' more self-indulgent and unnecessary scenes. At over two hours for this charming but somewhat slight story, a good pruning would make this film even better.

Pirate Radio is definitely B-level Richard Curtis, but even second-best Curtis has much to love.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2009 All rights reserved. Posted: November 13, 2009.


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