Pirate Radio (Review)

Richard Curtis' '60s tale is superficial and unrevealing

I remember how excited I was when the movie FM came out back in 1978. At last, here promised to be a really hip movie about the growth of freeform Rock radio and the commercial pressures that threatened and destroyed it.

Then FM turned out to be the broadest and hoariest of underdogs-against-the-system clichés, so generic in its understanding and character development as to insult those who went to see it wanting insight on the subject. And the music wasn’t even that good.

Some 30-plus years later, I was just as excited about Pirate Radio — and even more disappointed. FM at least was a youth-culture movie; this has the imprimatur of one of Britain’s top comic writer/directors (Richard Curtis) working with a major cast, but he doesn’t know what to do with his material.

It’s based on a fascinating, culturally crucial piece of Rock-radio history. In Britain in the mid-1960s, sensing that youth weren’t being served by BBC’s limited youth programming, entrepreneurs set up stations on ships off the coast to play the music of the day: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, etc.

These pirate stations, primarily Radio Caroline and Wonderful Radio London, were as much a part of Swinging London as Revolver and “My Generation.” The announcers had vibrant, youthful, wild personalities — some came from U.S. Top 40 radio. And in a deejay named John Peel, who had one of the first Album-Rock radio shows anywhere, the pirates pointed toward the musical future. It wasn’t long before the British government tried and ultimately succeeded in outlawing them.

Great stuff for a movie, and director/writer Curtis would seem up to the task — old enough to remember the pirate stations, he wrote Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill and went on to write and direct Love, Actually. He’s proven himself especially deft at working with groups of comic oddballs (Hugh Grant’s pals in Notting Hill) and in getting the best out of Bill Nighy (Love, Actually), the wonderfully droll British actor who projects prideful insecurity in such a singular way.

Well, he has Nighy in Pirate Radio — he’s the North Sea-anchored station Radio Rock’s beleaguered owner — but it doesn’t help much; he’s superfluous to the story’s flow. And there are some well-written wisecracks, as well as good songs sprinkled throughout the soundtrack.

But overall the film is superficial and unrevealing. Curtis, like FM 30 years ago, has used the premise as little more than an excuse for tried-and-true sitcom scenarios. Worse, while he has kept this a period piece (it wouldn’t make much sense if he didn’t) he has given all the characters a modern sensibility more fitting for Superbad than the 1960s. In the way they respond to each other’s (and their own) sexuality, nudity, language and bathroom habits, they all seem to have studied Madonna’s Truth or Dare and Judd Apatow. It rings so false.

There’s also the filmmaking to consider — there are too many cornball reaction shots of teenage girls or office workers on the mainland, dancing gleefully or tittering about something outrageous that a deejay says on the radio.

Curtis’ reputation is such that he can command a boatload of hot and prestigious actors — Mad Men’s luminescent January Jones even turns up briefly as a woman who marries one of the deejays under false pretenses. But, unfortunately, he has some Oscar-worthy actors (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson) lending their good names to an enterprise that runs aground. (Although Thompson, as a snooty, aristocratic lady unashamed of her randy past, is a bright presence.)

The merry band of radio pirates includes Hoffman (who once played wise Rock critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous) as The Count, a low-voiced rebel unafraid to say a dirty word on the air when opportunity arises. His on-ship rival is hard-living, cutting Gavin (a colorful if underused Rhys Ifans), and their macho rivalry leads to a preposterous scene of them climbing the ship’s masts while others look on as if the dangerous action is just a friendly frat-initiation stunt.

Other deejays include the sexually blunt Dave (Nick Frost), the sexually nave and self-doubting Simon (Chris O’Dowd) and the older, more intellectual, Peel-like Smooth Bob (Ralph Brown), who has an overnight Album- Rock show where he says things like, “Here’s a guitarist who’s quite good, actually,” and then plays a Jimi Hendrix song. There’s also the ship’s cook, a sweet-natured lesbian named Felicity (Katherine Parkinson) who is treated by everyone like a kid sister as they root for her to find a girlfriend.

Curtis tries hard to make us empathize with Carl (Tom Sturridge), a teen whose mom (Thompson) has sent him to live with godfather Nighy in order to gain maturity, which of course means falling in love with his godfather’s beautiful and sexually liberated niece (Talulah Riley). Meanwhile, on the mainland, a grim, glum and mean British official (Branagh) conspires to get the station off the air — even if it means killing them.

Curtis throws all illusions of realism overboard at the end, when the climax turns into a lazy Titanic/A Perfect Storm parody. As the ship goes down, Carl tries to save Smooth Bob, who apparently prefers to drown while clutching his beloved Incredible String Band album. By this point, Pirate Radio is all too literally one big sinking ship. Grade: C-

Opens Nov. 13. Check out theaters and show times, see more photos from the film and get theater details here.
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