Making radio waves off Britain's coast

Philip Seymour Hoffman (with Nick Frost , right) stars as the Count, a Radio Rock DJ illegally broadcasting pop and rock from off the British Isles in the 1960s when the music was ignored by licensed radio stations. "Pirate Rock" is tuneful but irritatingly upbeat.
Philip Seymour Hoffman (with Nick Frost , right) stars as the Count, a Radio Rock DJ illegally broadcasting pop and rock from off the British Isles in the 1960s when the music was ignored by licensed radio stations. "Pirate Rock" is tuneful but irritatingly upbeat.
Posted: November 13, 2009

Awash in nostalgia and amped-up male camaraderie, Richard Curtis' Pirate Radio takes a great story - the hugely popular offshore radio stations that illegally broadcast pop and rock in 1960s Britain - and turns it into an aggressively irritating floating frat-party romp.

Bobbing on an ebullient soundtrack of the Kinks, the Who, "I Feel Free," and "A Whiter Shade of Pale," Pirate Radio plops a gang of misfit DJs down on a red-hulled ship in the North Sea, where they spin vinyl and speak naughtily to schoolgirls, nurses, and university students - all of them listening giddily to the rock-and-roll the government doesn't want them to hear.

Yes, in the birthplace of the British Invasion, the land that launched the Beatles and the Stones, the licensed radio stations of the day aired next to no rock at all. And so a small flotilla of renegade radio outlets took to the high seas, and found an audience of 25 million listeners (or so says the film's context-heavy opening credits) happy to tune in.

And every one of those 25 million, it seems, shows up in the merry montages that run from beginning to end in Pirate Radio: shots of frugging Brits grooving to the beat and nodding approvingly to the provocative patter of the men at the mike.

Bill Nighy, sporting a paisley ascot and mock patrician airs, is Quentin, the man in charge of the good ship Radio Rock. The station's two big stars are a blustery Yank dubbed the Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Gavin (Rhys Ifans), a smooth, smoky-voiced gent with an ardent female following.

Also onboard: an enigmatic late-night DJ (Ralph Brown, of Withnail & I), a nutty New Zealander (Rhys Darby, from Flight of the Conchords), the thick "Thick Kevin" (Tom Brooke), a few other disc jockeys and engineers, a news reader, and Quentin's starry-eyed, still-a-virgin godson, Carl (Tom Sturridge). There is only one woman on the crew: the cook, Felicity (Katherine Parkinson) - and she's a lesbian.

Nonetheless, the occasional groupie clambers aboard: Enter the mod gamines played by Gemma Arterton and Talulah Riley, and enter Emma Thompson, as Carl's mum, checking up on her son - and on Quentin - in trendy sunglasses and couture.

While the music, clothes, posters, and album covers are all rigorously of the day, Curtis' dialogue jumps around in anachronistic fits. The expression "think outside the box" - a phrase certainly never uttered in 1966 - springs from one actor's mouth, and other vernacular rings conspicuously wrong.

Curtis, the wordsmith behind Love, Actually, Notting Hill, and Four Weddings and a Funeral, doesn't do period piece well - even if the period in question is only 40-odd years ago.

And then there's Kenneth Branagh, especially cartoonish as a British cabinet minister determined to bring an end to Radio Rock broadcasts.

Maybe I took such a passionate dislike to this impossibly upbeat film - benign, really, in character and concept - because it mocks one of my treasured albums of yesteryear (OK, I'll fess up), the second Incredible String Band disc. But actually, that throwaway joke comes near the movie's end. I was squirming in my seat long before then, loathing each and every radio pirate parading on the poop deck.


Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies.

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