Dialing up the rock 'n' ribaldry
Sometimes history just isn’t as much fun as it should be. “Pirate Radio,’’ a rowdy, mostly hilarious British comedy-drama about the offshore radio stations that blared rock ’n’ roll to a desperate young UK audience in the 1960s, would much rather show us a good time than stick to the facts. Writer-director Richard Curtis (“Love Actually’’) has made a party, not a movie, and if the party goes on much too long, at least the guests are great company and the host’s taste in music is impeccable.
Also: You can get a contact high just looking at the fashions. Not bad for a movie that takes place on a boat.
Some background for Yanks: The mid-’60s were a time of some of the greatest early British rock, and BBC Radio played none of it. If you wanted to hear the Beatles, the Stones, the Who - let alone the galvanic sounds pouring across the Atlantic from America - you had to tune in one of the handful of illegal stations broadcasting from rusty, repurposed fishing tubs in the international waters of the North Sea.
Pirate stations like Radio Caroline and Wonderful Radio London were listened to by millions, even as Beeb officials and government ministers fumed and plotted to put the pirates out of business. “Pirate Radio’’ - edited down from a longer British cut called “The Boat That Rocked’’ and presumably retitled to net careless US Johnny Depp fans - takes all this and fictionalizes it with high spirits and a nose for the tall tale.
Carl (Tom Sturridge) is our designated innocent, expelled from school and sent by his mother to live with family friend Quentin (Bill Nighy) aboard the good ship Radio Rock. Quentin - played with slumming aristocratic weariness as only Nighy can - oversees the crew of bad-boy deejays: tubby satyr Dave (Nick Frost), hapless Simon (Chris O’Dowd), Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke), space-case Bob (Ralph Brown), sexy Midnight Mark (Tom Wisdom), and so forth. The king of these waves is The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a grandiloquent, hard-rocking American based loosely on a
Like that movie, “Pirate Radio’’ has an affection for rock’s lasting truths and trivialities, and what it lacks in fidelity it makes up for with its soundtrack of achingly resonant period classics. (Many of them released later than 1966 and thus impossible for the film’s deejays to be spinning. Are you complaining? I’m not.) “Crimson and Clover,’’ “The Letter,’’ “Friday on My Mind,’’ “A Whiter Shade of Pale’’ - I think I won this compilation as the 10th caller in to WRKO back in 1968. When January Jones of “Mad Men’’ turns up as a listener in love with at least one of the deejays, she’s named Elenore only so the Turtles’ deathless song of that name can grace the film.
Speaking of which: The treatment of women in “Pirate Radio’’ is defiantly pre-feminist, with “visiting day’’ on the boat an excuse to shag a groupie or two and much made of Carl’s virginity and loss thereof. A few of the ladies keep up - Talulah Riley as a schoolgirl named Marianne (cue Leonard Cohen’s “So Long Marianne’’) and Emma Thompson, elegantly tarty as Carl’s mum - but mostly Radio Rock is a boy’s club happily dedicated to the founding principles of sex and drugs and rock ’n’ roll.
As such, the heroes really need a straight man to rebel against, so “Pirate Radio’’ gives us Kenneth Branagh enjoyably hamming away as a fussy government minister hellbent on shutting the pirates down. He has a minion (Jack Davenport) to whom writer-director Curtis has given a funny name and not much to do.
That shaggy-dog looseness permeates the whole movie, which rambles into what seems like a fourth act, then a fifth, until the characters are clearly having more fun than we are. “Pirate Radio’’ turns into yet another British ensemble comedy about colorful eccentrics, and while you don’t much mind - not with Hoffman and Nighy aboard - the real story of British pirate radio goes over the side. Too bad; someone should really make a movie about it someday.