On one level, Pirate Radio is a frothy period piece, liberally injected with gin and at least slightly inebriated comic spirits. The fictitious tale recounts the surprising period in the U.K. around 1966, when mainstream BBC radio refused to air the rock and roll revolution afoot. In the age of the Stones, The Who, and The Kinks, the broadcast task was left to the renegades of “Pirate Radio,” broadcasting from a ship in the North Sea. On another level, in 2009, one can’t help but think of the retroactive subtext of the story; that the music played is now part of the problem with our modern-day commercial rock radio, a largely bland and musty-retro place. “Pirate Radio” in the present day exists on the Internet and college radio. But I digress, if only slightly.
Writer/director Richard Curtis sets up his tale in broad and almost melodramatic terms. Taking advantage of the enclosed microcosmic environment on a ship-much like Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic-the film lavishes us with high jinx (high being one operative term), and the idealistic sense of a counterculture mission being undertaken from this vessel. Meanwhile, the stuffy governmental meanies back on land (led by Kenneth Branagh) are cooking up schemes to deep-six the station, despite its 20-million-plus-strong listenership. “We have some damage to do,” says Branagh, with a sinister grin.
From the good guy/bad boy contingent, Philip Seymour Hoffman again excels in the role of overstuffed and hipply articulate rock guru, as he did as legendary critic Lester Bangs in Almost Famous. As writer and director, Curtis has been involved in plenty of lightweight British comedies, including the Mr. Bean and Bridget Jones franchises, and some of that glib, shallow fizziness, mixed with occasional dollops of sentimental twaddle (such as the preposterous ending) sour the brew at times. But mostly, Pirate Radio succeeds in tickling the forgiving moviegoer and igniting that old feeling that rock and roll might contain the secret to youthful verve and nerve, especially when those moldy-fine oldies boom into ear space.