Once upon a time (in 1966) in a galaxy far, far away (Great Britain), rock ‘n’ roll was king (except on the traditional airwaves). Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart — you could hear them all on local radio stations. But the fresh new sounds of the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks were nowhere to be found.
Enter the merry band of pirates on which director/screenwriter Richard Curtis (Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral) bases his funny, lively if imperfect film. From ships located off England’s stuffy shores, scruffy DJs — possibly in violation of British law — broadcast the music people wanted to hear.
Set at a time when rock ‘n’ roll radio was bold, innovative, relevant and often shocking — all the elements so dreadfully missing from today’s boring, repetitive corporate radio — Pirate Radio focuses on fictional station Radio Rock and the antics of the ragtag music lovers who live aboard, led by erstwhile station manager Quentin (Bill Nighy, as always, perfectly cast whenever someone exceedingly louche is needed). Among his motley, rebellious crew of DJs are the Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the lone American, who longs to drop an F bomb on the air; sex god Gavin (an absolutely hilarious Rhys Ifans); big, slutty Dave (Nick Frost, Shaun of the Dead) and goofy Angus (Rhys Darby, better known as Murray, the world’s worst band manager in HBO’s The Flight of the Conchords), who can’t even swim despite living at sea.
The plot, such as it is, centers on virginal young Carl (Tom Sturridge), who has been kicked out of school. Oddly, his mum believes he will somehow learn something from living aboard the boat with these sex/drugs/boozehounds. Oh, he’ll learn, all right. Aside from the occasional squabble over women, the film’s conflict mostly arrives in the form of the persnickety Sir Alistair (Kenneth Branagh) over on the mainland, who hates rock ‘n’ and roll and is striving for ways to silence Radio Rock for good.
The music packs a great nostalgic kick, of course — though one must wonder at the inclusion of Taylor Swift in the film’s ending credit montage of great rock albums, not to get all Kanye or anything. The soundtrack isn’t exactly 1966-appropriate — Cat Stevens’ Father and Son, for example, wasn’t released until 1970 — but to complain makes you seem as fussy as Sir Alistair. We’re all just having fun here. The mostly male ensemble cast is energetically funny, and Curtis provides two excellent entrances for female characters, one to the tune of the Turtles’ bubbly Elenore. If you’re not humming that particular piece of pop froth when you walk out of the theater, you may need your hearing examined.
The only problem comes at the end, when things get too serious for the film’s irreverent tone. But until then Pirate Radio does what it sets out to do. It rocks.
Cast: Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kenneth Branagh, Nick Frost, Rhys Ifans, Rhys Darby, Tom Sturridge.
Director/screenwriter: Richard Curtis.
Producers: Hilary Bevan Jones, Tim Bevan, Richard Curtis, Eric Fellner.
A Focus Features release. Running time: 135 minutes. Language, some sexual content including brief nudity. Playing at area theaters.