With a great true story and one of the most purely entertaining ensembles of the year, Richard Curtis' Pirate Radio starts with a bang. It's like walking into a lavish costume party with likable characters, amazing tunes, and simply spectacular period clothes. The problem is that films require a bit more than a costume party. The goodwill of the first half hour or so of Pirate Radio wears off when you realize that it really has nowhere to go after that stellar introduction. Several films in one without fully developing any of them, Pirate Radio is one of those movies that tries to do too much at once and yet often feels like it's doing nothing at all. On paper, this is the story of nothing less than a cultural revolution, but it has been turned into an oddly-constructed piece about larger-than-life personalities on a ship. The gravity of the true story and what was accomplished when rock and roll invaded the United Kingdom has been sunk by a writer/director more interested in loosely sketching the story of the personalities involved than what they actually accomplished. Sure, there's a "rock will never die" motif floating through the piece, but the movie never gets the audience aboard the boat that rocked in a believable, genuine way, always keeping viewers at arm’s length and more likely to admire the amazing soundtrack and the cast than the power of the music and the characters. That's a crucial difference.
In late 1960s Britain, half of the population of the country was (usually secretly) listening to Radio Rock, a broadcast coming from an old tanker anchored in the middle of the North Seas. Rock music wasn't played on British radio, as it was all run by the government and it was illegal to play such rebellious tunes. Broadcasting live 24/7 from the tanker, Radio Rock changed the course of music and featured DJs like the leader The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the sexy Gavin (Rhys Ifans), the sleazy Dave (Nick Frost), the awkward Angus (Rhys Darby), the enigmatic Bob (Ralph Brown), the lovelorn Simon (Chris O'Dowd), the suave Mark (Tom Wisdom), the quiet Harold (Ike Hamilton), the news guy John (Will Adamsdale), the lesbian Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), and the appropriately-named Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke). Leading this cavalcade of competing personalities is the charismatic Quentin (Bill Nighy), the captain of this rocking ship.
Into the world of Rock Radio comes the naive "Young Carl" (Tom Sturridge), Quentin's godson, who has been sent to the ship for a little personality building. Carl comes with a bit of baggage about the true identity of his father (upon the first mention of this fact even the most naive filmgoer will know that daddy is probably on-board) and, of course, is ready to experience the sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifestyle of Radio Rock. Emma Thompson, January Jones, Kenneth Branagh, and Talulah Riley co-star.
With so many personalities on-board, it probably comes as no surprise that Pirate Radio sometimes sinks under the weight of the cast and their myriad of plotlines. Richard Curtis (writer of Love Actually, Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Girl in the Cafe) has written such an oddly episodic screenplay, one that jumps from DJ to DJ (usually with Young Carl as the common thread), that the film at times feels more like television than screenwriting. The first half hour, which sets up the characters and the fact that the movie is going to have a truly remarkable soundtrack (great tunes play throughout the film, nearly non-stop) will have you grinning but Pirate Radio basically goes absolutely nowhere from there. Sturridge has been given the thankless job of being the straight man but Curtis makes the mistake of also trying to give him the emotional arcs of the piece, as he falls in love and reconnects with his dad. The problem is that Young Carl isn't nearly as interesting as the DJs on Rock Radio, so the decision to try and get to know this superfluous lead at the expense of the more interesting personalities trying to spark a cultural revolution was an odd one and one that ultimately sabotages the piece.
If one approaches Pirate Radio with the idea that it will tell the story of the power of music and the introduction for rock to a nation, they will be disappointed. Approach it more as a star-studded personality piece, one that allows great actors like Hoffman, Frost, Thompson, and Ifans something new and fun for their clip reel and there are things to like about Pirate Radio. But for a film about people who helped guide one of the most important cultural waves in history, Pirate Radio
pretty much just bobs up and down instead of sailing forward.
Rating: TWO BONES
Reviewed by Brian Tallerico (MovieRetriever.com Film Critic)
Release Date: November 13th, 2009
Starring: Tom Sturridge, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Rhys Darby, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, January Jones, and Tallulah Riley
Director: Richard Curtis
Writer: Richard Curtis