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'Pirate Radio' Sends All the Wrong Signals

If Richard Curtis’ passion for pop wasn’t evident enough in his directorial debut, 2003’s Love Actually, he puts it on full display in Pirate Radio, his affectionate tribute to the spirit of rock, which was put to the severest of tests in the ’60s by censorious British bureaucrats. For Curtis, this is clearly a love letter signed, sealed and delivered to the artists of his youth, and to the DJs who broadcast the music.

Radio Rock, the fictitious shipboard station depicted here, is a composite of the various outlaw broadcasters forced offshore to avoid government reprisal for competing with the staid BBC. Pirate Radio doesn’t explore the financial interests that motivated lawmakers to target these stations, nor does it touch on the authorities’ belief that Britain’s Cold War enemies could use such illegal operations to broadcast propaganda. Instead, it suggests, rather improbably, that smug Tories like government minister Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) simply hated fun in all its forms.



That doesn’t sit well with Quentin (Bill Nighy), Radio Rock’s droll impresario, or his raucous crew of DJs, led by The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a hard-partying American whose love of shagging and boozy flights of nostalgia is rivaled only by his passion for music. Quentin, an old hand at hedonism, makes no real effort to rein in his underlings, for obvious reasons: Pirate Radio exists largely to glamorize their frat-boy shenanigans, as if their drinking and carousing might resonate as something more endearing and meaningful.



This is not a movie that has much respect for women. Curtis has written strong female characters in the past, particularly for Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) and Notting Hill (1999), but here the women brought aboard the Radio Rock ship for rec time – there’s a lone lesbian cook (Katherine Parkinson) living amid the all-male crew – are present primarily as glorified sex toys.

Joining Nighy and Hoffman on board is a cast of richly talented comic actors, including Nick Frost (Shaun of the Dead) as an unlikely Romeo; Rhys Ifans (Notting Hill), whose heavily suggestive on-air patter is mildly embarrassing; and Rhys Darby (HBO’s Flight of the Conchords) as the crew member convinced he’s the butt of every joke. The ensemble chemistry pays off in fits and starts, but their casual cruelty to each other is a needless turn-off. Comedy doesn’t work when it’s tone-deaf.



Foremost among Pirate Radio’s weaknesses is Branagh’s character, whose hatred of Radio Rock seems positively cartoonish. (It doesn’t help that his assistant, played by Jack Davenport, is named Twatt, in a sophomoric gag that’s terminally dumb from the get-go.) Branagh’s performance isn’t the problem – he plays the role as it’s meant to be played – but Dormandy’s fury is over-the-top absurd, to the point that he’d rather kill Quentin and his boys than arrest them.



There has perhaps never been a movie more packed with dance montages than Pirate Radio, and I’d like to say that’s not a bad thing. But I can’t. At some point, cutting away from the story and its brilliant soundtrack (featuring The Who, The Kinks and Smokey Robinson) to show radio listeners partying it up at home is a distraction. On-screen merriment isn’t always contagious.



The movie features fine performances by Hoffman and Nighy, as well as by Tom Sturridge (Vanity Fair), playing a young newcomer to the ship whose coming-of-age story goes nowhere. But on the whole, Curtis’ latest is a well-intentioned misfire, a love letter best left unanswered.