Film Review: Pirate Radio

Rock-filled ensemble comedy inspired by the rogue broadcasts of rock hits from North Sea ships in the ’60s runs seriously aground from so much lightweight cargo and an apocalyptic ending pirated from action-adventure.

Originally titled The Boat That Rocked and running 135 minutes in its U.K. release beginning last April, the relentlessly upbeat, superficial, less weighty Pirate Radio still sinks. Like the Titanic’s orchestra, its rousing music and fierce though not fatal eagerness to entertain does add some buoyancy.

The film, based on the actual 1960s offshore broadcasts of the much-loved rock that British radio was forbidden to deliver, might have been smooth sailing except for the mutineer onboard—writer-director Richard Curtis (Love Actually and the scripts for Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill). He goes overboard with comedic silliness before abruptly changing course with a supercharged Titanic/Poseidon Adventure action-movie ending.

As an ensemble comedy, the film hits familiar marks. When not on brief shore leaves in the U.K.’s hostile corridors of government power, the story unfolds aboard the Radio Rock tanker where station owner/boss Quentin (Bill Nighy) oversees his merry band of DJs and support crew. There are, among others, the boat’s reigning American DJ king, The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman); fat, lovable, libidinal Dave (Nick Frost); romantic Irishman Simon (Chris O’Dowd), who gets duped into an all-too-brief shipboard marriage; Bob (Ralph Brown), the never-seen early-morning DJ; bespectacled news announcer John (Will Adamsdale); and quiet ladies’ man Mark (Tom Wisdom), who gets the girls by just shutting up.

The crew’s de rigueur virgin newbie—the offshoot of a quickie rock ’n’ roll one-night stand—arrives in the person of young Carl (Tom Sturridge), Quentin’s godson and son of the alluring Charlotte (an almost unrecognizable Emma Thompson), a reformed “I’m with the band” type, now a tweedy but still-sexy spin on Marianne Faithfull or Anita Pallenberg. Carl, recalling the young Jean-Pierre Leaud, also brings on board some suspense: Who might his daddy be? Kind Dave takes Carl under his wing before stealing his golden opportunity.

Such stories also need villains and Pirate Radio delivers them with a sledgehammer in the form of Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), the minister determined to curtail the North Sea broadcasts, and his equally snotty, toady assistant Twatt (Jack Davenport). Dormandy’s frantic rants and plotting and Twatt’s desperation to please return us to land while drowning us in the film’s most ridiculously hyperbolic scenes.

Gullible Simon has an onboard marriage with gorgeous American Elenore (January Jones of “Mad Men”), who after only a few hours has hopped into bed with star DJ Gavin (Rhys Ifans), a sexually charged, pencil-thin, five-and-dime version of Mick Jagger or Keith Richards. A latecomer to Radio Rock, Gavin becomes the arch-rival of The Count, now no longer the ship’s star DJ. A suspense interlude has the two racing up two masts, taking severe falls and, as injured rivals, making up.

With the only female onboard their lesbian cook Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), the guys periodically receive, literally, boatloads of girls eager to accommodate. One such visitor is Marianne (Talulah Riley), charged with relieving Carl of his virginity. He botches the encounter and eventually loses ever-ready Marianne to Dave. The lady shipments afford Pirate Radio its sizeable injections of guy-skewed comedy raunch a la Hollywood.

It’s not that Pirate Radio doesn’t have its bright moments. There are delicious performances from, among others, Nighy, Thompson and Ifans. Also on the plus side, Curtis has amassed a tidal wave of nostalgic ’60s rock to fuel his anecdotal narrative.

The Pirate Radio women are mainly “birds,” flighty, easy, trashy. But don’t blame the era: Even “Mad Men” wrings some humanity out of its objectified ’60s females. Also notable is the low-grade humor (“Twatt’s” not funny) and the stretch turning the notoriously rough, gray North Sea into a sun-dappled lake.

Yet plenty of today’s theatre-goers, in spite of the recent St. Trinian’s bomb, might be more inclined toward a Brit comedy of the downmarket Carry On kind than the smarter Ealing-inspired variety.