I can’t claim to be a fan of the whimsical stylings of Richard Curtis, but I can’t really claim to be a hater as well. I’ve never seen any of Curtis’ films before and, as popular as they seem to be, his films just don’t seem like anything I’d be interested in. Heartfelt romantic cinematic tales just aren’t really my bag. With Pirate Radio, it was the first Richard Curtis film that I was actually somewhat interested in seeing. For one, it’s (kind of) based off a true story, which I’m usually down for, and it boasts quite a splendid cast. While the cast certainly does make Pirate Radio watchable for a host of delightful performances, the rest of the film sinks like a stone in the North Sea.
This film isn’t based off a singular true story of a “pirate radio” station, but it seemingly takes bits and pieces of the true phenomena that were the numerous pirate radio stations that were adrift just outside the British coastline, feeding precious rock-and-roll to the British masses. See, the BBC was only broadcasting two hours of rock-and-roll per week in the late 60s, ironic as it were since the home country of the era’s most influential bands (The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who) would rarely play its music through the proper BBC. This, of course, (at some unspecified time…) gave way to “pirate radio” stations – large ships docked just off the coast of Britain that would play rock-and-roll and other popular music 24/7. The film actually opens on a young child from an upscale family, going to bed for the night… only to pull out a transistor radio to put under his pillow so he can listen to the likes of The Count (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) on Radio Rock, and we see in a quick series of cuts, several other children doing the same, with other adults listening as well. Soon thereafter we’re introduced to the zany crew of Radio Rock, and the film proceeds to get rather out of control from there.
Writer-director Richard Curtis really takes us on as rocky a journey as possible in the film, with a convoluted plot, incredibly unnecessary sub-plots and an ending that makes you wonder why you wasted 135 minutes in the first place. The main action here is the plight of this overpopulated crew of Radio Rock. We have the captain, Quentin (Bill Nighy), the station’s fearless leader, the head DJ, The Count (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and a host of other people who are DJ’s, including Nick Frost who plays Dave. They get a newcomer to the boat in Carl (Tom Sturridge), who seems to be some sort of relative to Quentin (a plot point that becomes so unnecessarily muddled as the film progresses), and he’s welcome aboard, even though he doesn’t seem to do really anything at all. The film cuts back and forth between Rebel Radio and the snobby British government that wants these pirate radio stations to be shut down, with Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) leading the charge along with his new workhorse named Twatt (Jack Davenport). Yes, seriously, Twatt, a double-entendre that Curtis beats us over the head with more often than those Fockers do. While there are plenty of solid doses of humor throughout the film, we’re reminded far too often in the film that before Curtis brought us films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually, he wrote for Mr. Bean…
Practically the only thing that keeps this ship from sinking completely are some peculiar and lovely performances from quite a talented cast. Philip Seymour Hoffman delivers once again as The Count and I can’t recall such a brilliantly bizarre performance from Bill Nighy in quite some time. Kenneth Branagh is another devilishly delightful surprise as the uppity Alistair Dormandy and Nick Frost is his usual, wonderful self as Dave. While the rest of the cast delivers serviceable performances, this cast is just way way too crowded here and they even waste the talents of January Jones, Emma Thompson and future it-girl Gemma Arterton in tiny one-scene turns that really aren’t terribly necessary, save for stunt casting. I’m not saying that this trio of talented ladies don’t deliver here, because they do, but it’s just a shame that we only see them for one scene apiece. Curtis’ script seems like just a bunch of dream scenarios loosely tied together by this shoddy format and an ethereal wish-list of songs he grew up on. He sets the whole film up like these radio revolutionaries whom the government are fighting so hard against, and will get their comeuppance in the end. However, by the time the credits roll you realize that you’ve just spent more than two hours watching some weird mélange of semi-fact and mostly-fiction about these pirate radio crews, without even any semblance of how, or even why, they were important. Curtis zips us through the opening, throwing a bunch of facts at us that kind of sets up why they are there, but even if that can be forgiven, we don’t really get much of an ending at all here. In essence, the film is a portrait of the time that doesn’t seem to shed much light on why this portrait should be even looked at in the first place.
Pirate Radio is a film that has four of the five W’s down, but severely lacks the other. We get the who, with a brilliant cast, the what, with a solid premise, the when and where with late 60s Britain… but absolutely no why.