The movie formerly known as “The Boat That Rocked” had to change its name for American audiences, and now goes by “Pirate Radio.” Does that count as being kept down by the Man, or as sticking it to him? In Germany it’s called “Radio Rock Revolution.” In Italy, “I Love Radio Rock.” “Good Morning England” is how it’s known in France. Taking the film’s own convivial demeanor as an example, let’s assume not that its makers don’t actually know what story they’ve told, but instead that the distributors just wanted to be sure its peculiar charms weren’t lost in translation.
Those charms are real, if cursory; the story “Pirate Radio”’s makers have told is what amounts to a buoyant dollop of docile anti-establishment nostalgia. It’s like this: See, the ’60s were great for rock ‘n’ roll in Great Britain — except for the fact of the government there being so threatened by the stuff, and the conservative BBC Radio, which monopolized the airwaves, not broadcasting it for more than an hour a day. Under such circumstances it seemed only natural that a literal boatload of unlicensed rock deejays would take over an old trawler, drop anchor just beyond British territorial waters in the North Sea, and start rocking around the clock.
In this reality-derived but fictional case, from writer-director Richard Curtis, it’s also a pretext for the sort of ensemble comedy in which each member of the ensemble tends toward one-dimensionality but it’s mostly OK because there are so many members, and they’re all so talented. The “Pirate Radio” ensemble includes, among others, Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Nick Frost, Rhys Ifans and Rhys Darby (with an Emma Thompson cameo, as artificially occasioned as it is delightful); in musically supporting roles it includes, among others, the Who, the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Cream. Curtis’ approach is straightforward enough: Measure your casting carefully, then add water and stir.
“Pirate Radio” has plot, of sorts, winningly presided over by a dry, dandyish Nighy as the ship’s captain, and jerry-built around the initiation of his fresh-faced adolescent godson (Tom Sturridge) into the mysteries of sex, drugs and seafaring rock ‘n’ roll. Also: frothing opposition to same from an earthbound culture minister played by Kenneth Branagh, whose stifling prudery and ashen milieu is drafted with concise cartoonish brilliance. And it has subplot, most notably in the rivalry between a grizzled, rollicking Hoffman and an imperious, carnally charged Ifans. Chaotic camaraderie is of the essence–it can get sentimental (there is quite a lot of hugging, in fact), and it can get cruel (there is some cold-hearted hazing), too.
It can also get tired: Curtis’ potently episodic structure does seem sometimes to chafe at standard feature-film proportions. Importantly, before he wrote “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Notting Hill” and the “Bridget Jones” movies, and wrote and directed “Love Actually,” Curtis worked in the shorter form of television, specializing in sketchlike, character-driven and palpably eccentric shows such as “Blackadder,” “Mr. Bean” and “The Vicar of Dibley.” It’s easy to imagine this film working well in that abbreviated format, maybe even better than it works as a movie.
At its best, though, “Pirate Radio” is as brazenly grooving and as blissfully immaterial as one of the many classic rock anthems whose virtues it commemorates. To look on the bright side of Curtis’ glancing approach is to see that it doesn’t suffer from the stolid self-importance so common in other narratives of rock music history; instead of overselling the era’s significance, he manages to luxuriate in its triviality.
For better and worse, it’s telling that the character with whom the movie first identifies is entirely peripheral — just a plain suburban kid, standing in for the filmmaker himself, who sneaks a radio under his pillow to tune in the pirate broadcasts at bedtime. Perhaps, after all, Curtis should have just met the Man halfway. Perhaps he should have gone ahead and called his film “Pirate Radio Rock Revolution Love Boat of England in the Morning,” just to be sure he’d pleased absolutely everybody.