As the British Invasion stormed American airwaves in the mid-'60s its conquest of its native land took the shape of a sea-based guerrilla offensive. Broadcasting from ships anchored just outside British territorial waters a handful of so-called “pirate radio” stations defied the BBC’s strict limits on popular music by blasting the isles with around-the-clock rock 'n' roll. Writer/director Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral Love Actually) pays tribute to that vibrant era with Pirate Radio a sentimental lighthearted ode to the renegade DJs who helped British rock find its sea legs.
Curtis introduces us to Pirate Radio’s motley ensemble through the bright eyes of Carl (Tom Sturridge) a naive schoolboy whose godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy playing perhaps the hippest sexagenarian in history) owns and operates Radio Rock Britain’s premier pirate station. Surrounded by a crew of boisterous impossibly well-dressed musical misfits — all of whom are seemingly modeled after various '60s countercultural archetypes (the mod hipster the impish lothario the uncompromising purist the dazed hippie the Jim Morrison clone etc.) — Carl’s unusual voyage of discovery commences in earnest.
Pirate Radio may strike some as reminiscent of another nostalgic paean to the wonders of rock 'n' roll Almost Famous — not least because star Philip Seymour Hoffman essentially resuscitates his Lester Bangs performance in this film. But Pirate Radio is far less ambitious than Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film not seeking so much to define an era as to use it as the backdrop for a brisk buoyant comedy. And in that regard it succeeds far more often than it fails thanks largely to the efforts of a talented cast led by Hoffman Nighy Nick Frost and Rhys Darby. There are a few bittersweet moments scattered throughout Pirate Radio but at its core the film is a comic coming-of-age story — punctuated by a lively soundtrack loaded with classics from the Who the Kinks the Rolling Stones and other seminal bands.
It should be noted that a significantly longer version of the film titled The Boat That Rocked debuted in the UK over six months ago. Narrative gaps are evident throughout Pirate Radio but director Curtis’ decision to pare nearly 20 minutes off the film’s running time for its American release looks like a wise one as the shortened length still tests the limits of one’s patience. Rock 'n' roll can be many things but it must never ever be boring.