Movie Review: Pirate Radio (2009)

Philip Seymour Hoffman in Pirate Radio
Photo: Focus Features

Richard Curtis’s Pirate Radio features a collage of misfits played by some of the U.K.’s greatest comedic actors with Philip Seymour Hoffman bringing a taste of America to the story. The story isn’t true, but is loosely based on a very real situation in the 1960s when the government-backed British Broadcasting Company (BBC) broadcast barely played two hours of rock and pop music every week over the U.K. radio airwaves. Compare this to the 571 American radio stations playing the same music 24 hours a day and you can immediately understand the dilemma. Curtis took this event, filled a ship with pirate radio broadcasters of his own creation and asked himself, “What would happen?” Pirate Radio is the result of that question.

Set in 1966, writer/director Richard Curtis was ten-years-old at the time and wrapped up in the tradition of hiding his radio under his pillow late at night and listening to The Beatles, Rolling Stones and The Who the only real way he could, as broadcast from a boat. His script imagines what life must have been like for a group of eccentric and egomaniac males on board that boat where the only day-to-day female companionship is a lesbian chef all while half the British population hangs on their every word and the government tries to silence them. Consider Curtis’s directorial debut, Love Actually (a personal favorite), bring back Bill Nighy, add Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost and Kenneth Branagh and you suddenly have a party.

The film suffered a bumpy road to the States, however, as it was originally introduced to U.K. audiences as The Boat that Rocked and was received with luke warm-to-negative reviews from British press, many of which proclaimed it to be too long. The title was changed, the film was presumably edited (although the running time still remains the same) and shifted from Universal to Focus Features. While I particularly enjoyed the film, I can understand the length complaints as that is certainly the film’s largest issue. It not only focuses on the goings-on aboard pirate radio flagship “Radio Rock,” but also pays attention to what is going on at a government level with Branagh playing minister Dormandy, placed in charge of shutting down the offshore pirates.

Branagh himself is extremely entertaining, but his character would have best been left for a television sitcom telling of this tale where more time would have been allotted the varied elements of the larger story as part of a series. Dormandy, along with his hired gun, the comedically named Twatt played by Jack Davenport (Norrington from Pirates of the Caribbean), provide the villainous element, but instead of creating any serious tension it more-or-less diverts the attention of the viewer for five minute blocks at a time. It’s sometimes funny, but wears thin later into the film.

Bill Nighy plays Quentin, the owner of the pirate radio station and ship captain, serving as the film’s figurehead with a streamlined appearance but also a slightly off-kilter attitude easing us into the unique nature of the rest of the deejays and ship’s crew. Hoffman and Ifans carry-on in an innocent-yet-immature fashion as two deejays competing for the limelight while the supporting cast is sure to get their shots in whenever available.

The comedy in Pirate Radio is high, but it suffers from occasional lulls that will most likely turn off any audience not instantly entertained by the premise or drawn to the talent telling the story. The film is told through the eyes of Quentin’s godson Carl (Tom Sturridge) and like him we witness the madness, but are just as equally sucked in and wanting to join in the fun. It’s an “us against them” kind of a film and the group that makes up the “us” is so entertaining you can’t help but fall in line.