We’ve seen the 1960s era of “sex, drugs and rock n’ roll” depicted in film before but never from the British point of view with humor, style and heart quite like it is in the new film “Pirate Radio.” British director Richard Curtis has a knack for blending American and British actors into successful films based in London such as “Four Weddings and a Funeral,” “Notting Hill” and most recently “Love Actually,” the latter which featured Bill Nighy as an aging rock star. Nighy is back in excellent form in Curtis’ new film, this time as the station manager/Captain of the boat that one of these Pirate Radio station transmits from.
The film is based on the true story of radio stations in ‘60s England that were banned from playing rock n’ roll and forced to go out to sea in order to broadcast. Although British Rock like the Beatles and the Stones were huge in America at the time, the face of England was still boring and stuffy as British radio primarily only played news and classical music. The film depicts one member of parliaments crusade to bring down the pirate stations and one station’s attempts to stay on the air. Like Curtis’ previous work the director seamlessly blends humor, heart, fine acting and classy storytelling, along with the music that generations have grown up on like The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Who and The Beach Boys, into one very fun and entertaining film.
The film begins by introducing us to Carl, a young virgin, in all senses of the word, played quite well by newcomer Tom Sturridge. Carl is the audience’s window into the world of Radio Rock, a pirate radio station that broadcasts from the high seas. Tom was sent by his Mother (Emma Thompson) to live with his Godfather, Quentin played by the always-delightful Bill Nighy. Quentin is the manager of the station and Captain of the boat. As Carl is introduced to his new boat-mates, so are we. First there is The Count, the sole American DJ who is played effortlessly by Oscar Winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Next we meet suave, ladies man Dave played by “Shawn of the Dead” star Nick Frost, the New Zealand “nut” Anus, played hilariously by “Flight if the Conchords” star Rhys Darby and Tom’s new roommate the naïve but good-hearted Simon (Chris O’Dowd). After being introduced to the rest of the ship, the film quickly shows us the other side of the coin. A government minister, played with piss and vinegar by the talented Kenneth Branagh, declares war on the Radio Pirates and enlists fellow bureaucrat, the apply named “Twatt” (Jack Davenport), to help him devise a plan to take those damn “hippies” down.
As the film unfolds, Carl’s eyes are quickly opened to a whole new world. He soon meets Quentin’s niece Marianne played by the cute-as-a-button Tallulah Riley and becomes quite smitten with her. However, in a very funny scene where the young boy is frantically looking for a condom, the moment is snatched away by the ferocious Dave, as he is able to bed her first. Not after long, Quentin announces that he has snatched up one of the greatest rock DJ’s around to come and work at the station, Gavin “the King of the airwaves” played fantastically over-the-top by Rhys Ifans. This doesn’t go over so well with the Count and the two egomaniacs soon butt heads. Complicating matters is a groupie, played with sultry ease by “Mad Men” siren January Jones, who tricks and marries not-too-bright Simon so she can be closer to her true love Gavin. Meanwhile, Carl realizes that his Mother may have had devious motives when she exiled him to the boat and begins to think that his Father, who he’s never met, may be aboard the ship. Eventually, Carl finds the truth and reconciles with Marianne but not before he realizes that he has become part of something greater than himself by making friends and memories that will change his life forever. What follows is the Government’s relentless hunt to bring pirate radio stations down and the friendship and love for music that kept a small group of rebels together and helped shape the face of music for generations to come.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman is brilliant as always in his role but it is not exactly an unfamiliar one to him. The actor played ‘70s American Rock n’ Roll DJ Lester Banks in Cameron Crow’s Rock n’ Roll opus, “Almost Famous.” Although the two roles seem oddly similar on the surface, it was after great thought that I realized why the actor, who is known for pushing himself and taking risks, would decide to play this role. The Count and Lester Banks are really two different sides of the same coin. Where Banks was cynical and bleak about the future of rock n’ roll, the Count is just the opposite, optimistic about the future and what rock n’ roll can do to change it. As I watched the film I realized that, likely unintentionally, this movie makes a great companion piece to “Almost Famous,” a great rock n’ roll double feature in the making perhaps. But Hoffman floats through the film, completely believable at all times making us laugh and moving us to tears with his inspirational speeches towards the end of the film. The rest of the cast is wonderful especially Nighy who brings a sense of class and panache that are greatly appreciated in the film. Also incredibly funny in the film is the pair of Rhys’, Darby and Ifans, respectively. Darby especially steals most of the scenes he’s in with his odd, brash sense of humor. Both Davenport and Branagh are wonderful as the villains of the film but it is Branagh who seems to be having the time of his life delightfully “chewing up the scenery” as the frustrated and up-tight government official. Finally rounding out the cast is the brief but welcomed appearance of Emma Thompson as Carl’s Mother. She too brings an elegance and class that brightens every scene she’s in.
The script, by Curtis, is just as sharp and funny as any of his previous films and his directing is spot-on as always. But of course, it is the music that is the real star of the film and lets face it, no matter what age you are, for the most part you grew up on this music. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, The Kinks, The Who, The Beach Boys, David Bowie, The Supremes and I could go on and on. The film does an amazing job of filling the movie with not just the hits we know, but deep-cuts that can now be introduced to a whole new generation. Curtis also does a great job of telling the other story, from the Government’s point of view, with great humor and passion and photographs the bleakness of England with great effect. “Pirate Radio” is a must see for fans or Curtis’ previous work, lover’s of rock music and anyone that likes a good-hearted, touching and outrageously funny film.