Ruling the (air) waves: Pirate Radio ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on November 14, 2009)

Philip Seymour Hoffman rehearses his BTO tribute band.

 Pirate Radio is the latest entry in the British invasion of feel-good, “root for the underdogs” comedy-dramas that have been coming at us over the last decade (The Full Monty, Still Crazy, Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, Kinky Boots, Bend it Like Beckham, etc.).

Released in the U.K. earlier this year under a different title (The Boat That Rocked) and with a substantially longer running time (more on that shortly), the film is based on true-life events surrounding Britain’s thriving offshore rock ’n’ roll pirate radio scene in the mid-to-late 60s (Radio Caroline and Radio London were the most well-known). The hugely popular stations came about as a rebellious counterpoint to the staid, government funded BBC programming that monopolized the British airwaves in those days.

The film, not so much an illuminating history lesson as it is a “WKRP on the high seas” romp, breezes along amiably, buoyed by an engaging cast. We are introduced to a bevy of wacky and colorful  characters through the eyes of young Carl (Tom Sturridge), who has been put out to sea (in a matter of speaking) on the pirate broadcasting ship, “Radio Rocks” by his free-spirited mother, who is at a loss as to how to deal with his recent expulsion from college.

She hopes that the boat’s captain/radio station manager, who is Carl’s godfather (played by the ever-delightful Bill Nighy) will be able to straighten him out. It quickly becomes apparent that one would be hard-pressed to locate any traditionally “upstanding” role models for the impressionable lad among the motley crew at hand, being that most on-board activities eventually circle back in one form or another to the pursuit of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.

Philip Seymour Hoffman hams it up as the lone American DJ on the staff, who gets into a pissing contest with a “legendary” British air personality (Rhys Ifans) who has been coaxed into joining the station after taking an extended sabbatical from the biz. They are soon united against a common enemy, when an ultra-conservative government minister (Kenneth Branagh, in Snidely Whiplash mode) decides to make it his mission in life to take the “pirates” down.

Writer-director Richard Curtis has a knack for clever repartee (among his screenwriting credits is one of my favorite romantic comedies, The Tall Guy). I would have liked more historical context; the narrative sometimes dissolves into pure bedroom farce. There are also jumps in the timeline that I found slightly confusing; this may be attributable to  30 minutes or so of footage that has excised from its full U.K. cut (which I hope will be available on DVD).

There is a great period soundtrack (The Who, The Kinks, Cream, etc.) although I caught a couple tunes that the DJs were spinning which had not yet been released as of 1966, the year in which the story is set.  Nitpicks aside, it is still worth a spin.

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