I’ll walk the plank defending my claim that Pirate Radio is one of the best films of the year. Free with the facts, but true to their essence, writer/director Richard Curtis (Love Actually) has conjured a delightful, totally entertaining ode to Britain’s mythic Swinging Sixties.
His script is cut-to-the-bone brilliant, the dialogue is Brit-wit hilarious, the performances are lightweight but pointed, and the Chelsea Look fashions are “flower power” spot-on. Then there’s the nostalgia-ecstatic soundtrack — Kinks, The Who, Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Yardbirds, and more, almost 60 tracks — played on screen by outrageous, bawdy, certifiably bonkers rockaholic deejays.
Though the “British Invasion” turned popular music in the U.S. on its ears in the ’60s, British rock fans were out in the cold. The government-controlled radio allowed only two hours a week of the “noxious, depraved” stuff on the airwaves. So rock-mad scallywags took matters into their own hands. They produced a flotilla of ship-based radio stations that floated or moored in international waters outside U.K. jurisdiction. The “radio pirates,” influenced by U.S. deejays (Wolfman Jack et al), played the rebellious music 24/7. Millions of Brits, half the population, listened rapturously.
On the Radio Rock ship, the testosterone-driven universe of the rock deejays is heightened by isolation and attempts to live up to their own legends. The all male staff, except for the lone female, a lesbian cook named Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), lives in the cramped ship’s quarters full-time, playing silly word games or sunbathing on deck in their off hours. Ruling with benign neglect is their boss, a languorous dandy named Quentin (Bill Nighy).
Being part of an ensemble, none of the characters in Pirate Radio is deep, but each is perfectly scripted and played to come across as distinct and believable. Leading the motley crew is The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a furry, honey-voiced American who relishes being the avuncular Alpha Male. Wanting a coup in the castle is the brightly clad, sex-torqued newcomer, Gavin (Rhys Ifans). Rounding out the buccaneers is chippie-magnet Mark, romantic Simon, eccentric Angus, rotund Dave, stupid Thick Kevin, so-serious News John, and the scruffy, mysterious early morning guy, Bob (Ralph Brown).
Like moths drawn to spotlights, pirate groupies sail over on the weekends, so at least the film has a few female cameos, including smiley Marianne (Talula Riley), and blushing bride Elenor (January Jones). Even Emma Thompson drops by, as a stylish, world-weary Mum, with naughty secrets. It’s a testament to how delightful Pirate Radio is that I loved it despite its dearth of female roles.
Into the mix comes teenage Carl (Tom Sturridge), Quentin’s godson, hoping to lose his virginity and find the father he never knew. Thus a coming-of-age story sweetens the sometimes acerbic competition of the older men. All the “Animal House” frat boys onboard are actually nice to one another — no doubt, a sanitized version of reality — resulting in a fantasy that is enjoyable every single moment of its 135 minute running time.
As we all know, anarchy and guilt-free sex can never keep rolling along merrily forever. Killjoys have to rear their square heads. Slick-haired politician, Sir Alister Dormandy (a gleefully reptilian Kenneth Branagh), is determined to get the pirates off the air. He sets his assistant, Mr. Twatt (Jack Davenport), to do his dirty work and the poor slob ends up frightfully efficient.
Our hapless heroes are assaulted from all sides. The politicians are successful, girls become willful, male bonding never runs smoothly, and oh, yes, there’s that big hole in the hull of the ship that’s allowing the freezing waters of the North Sea to pour in.
Only the passion for music stays constant. The Count, never one to lose his dedication just because he might lose his life, rallies the troops to keep placing the needle on the turning LPs. “All over the world,” he cries, “young men and young women will always dream dreams and put those dreams into song!”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!”