Despite a title change from The Boat That Rocked to Pirate Radio, this British import exudes about as much outlaw swagger as Tom DeLay in a dance competition. Forget about historical veracity. The film's offshore radio broadcasting ship Radio Rock is a fictional stand-in for the actual operation Radio Caroline, which was shut down by the British government in 1967. The politics of Pirate Radio never get any weightier than its general oppositional tone of Us against the Man. And when it comes to sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, writer-director Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Love Actually) pretty much leaves out that middle entity: drugs.
The biggest problem with Pirate Radio is its lax narrative structure. The film is a series of episodic scenes spotlighting characters who are a mere collection of quirks, costumes and gestures. This is all the more frustrating because the performances are good.
Philip Seymour Hoffman more or less reprises his Lester Bangs shtick from Almost Famous: good but nothing new. He's the radio station's American import and main attraction, a cool cat dubbed the Count. We expect fireworks to occur with the return of Gavin (Rhys Ifans), a Carnaby Street dandy and babe magnet who was the station's previous top DJ. But nothing passes between these two apart from a couple of stony glares.
As much as there is a story, it takes shape with young recruit Carl (Tom Sturridge), who comes aboard after getting kicked out of boarding school. Carl is the audience's surrogate, through whose eyes we experience the waning months of the pirate-radio experience. We meet all the DJs along with Carl and witness the loopy merriment that occurs when a dozen or so guys are locked up together on a boat. Women are shipped in every couple of weeks, and there's plenty of shagging, one wedding and a lesbian cook thrown in for good measure.
Kenneth Branagh is dry-docked with his role as the minister tasked with finding a legal means to shut down the offshore broadcasters. Whenever Curtis cuts back to Branagh's landlubber scenes, the film loses energy, and the actor's consternation is an effete stereotype.
The ending of Pirate Radio turns into a poor man's Titanic, made even worse by all the valedictory speeches about rock 'n' roll not going down with the ship. I guess there's something to that: Pirate Radio is awash in nonstop music. (I'm guessing that a fair amount of the film's budget was spent on music rights.) You can at least shut your eyes and be transported back to 1966.
Eastgate, Point, Star, Sundance