Imagine you're a British teenager in the mid-1960s. The new breed of English rock is taking over the world. Across the pond in America, the Beatles, Kinks, Rolling Stones, Animals, Troggs and Yardbirds can all be heard around the clock on U.S. radio. Back at home, though, the government controls the airwaves, through the dowdy BBC, and the government has decided that no one needs to hear this unseemly music.
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The pirates didn't last long, though. In the summer of 1967, the government shut them down with the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act, which made it a crime for any British subject to work on or supply their ships. But the outlaws won, in a way: Only weeks after they were crushed, the BBC started its own, rather pirate-like pop station, Radio 1. Mission accomplished, you might say.
The movie does a worthy job of capturing the spirit of those freewheeling years. And the film's soundtrack is as rousing as you'd expect, packed not just with predictable hits, but great one-offs by Chris Andrews, Sandy Shaw and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown. (One ringer, though: "Crimson and Clover" wasn't released until late '68, well after the pirates had chugged off into history.)
"Pirate Radio" came out in Britain last spring, encumbered by a terrible title: "The Boat That Rocked." That cut of the film ran well over two hours; it was savaged by critics and bombed at the box office. It has now been trimmed by 20 minutes, presumably making it move along a little faster. But the story, written by director Richard Curtis (who also wrote "Notting Hill" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral"), has structural problems that no amount of editing could finesse, and in the end they capsize the picture.
The movie opens with the arrival onboard Radio Rock of a teenager named Carl (Tom Sturridge — little-known here, but primed for larger stardom). Carl has been expelled from school and dispatched by his mother to spend time with his oddball godfather, Quinn (Bill Nighy), the ship's patrician owner and de facto captain. Carl soon bonds with the resident disc jockeys, among them an interloping American called the Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman); the party-prone Dave (Nick Frost, of "Hot Fuzz"); and a legendary British DJ named Gavin (Rhys Ifans), who's just back from a Stateside gig and ready to join the pirate-radio revolution. (Ifans, fitted out with a period velvet suit and smarmy on-air purr, is perfect in the role.) Carl also hooks up with Quinn's niece, Marianne, played by Talulah Riley. (With her pert bangs and mod togs, Riley might actually have stepped right out of the mid-'60s.)
What follows is essentially a procession of scenes, some of them very funny. (Leading three visiting dollies off to his quarters, the Count inquires, "Do you mind if I call you all by the same name?") But they never quite cohere into a story. The subplot that has Carl searching for a father he's never known drags; and the movie grinds to a halt whenever Kenneth Branagh appears as a prissy government functionary obsessed with taking the pirates down. (With his prim mustache and sputtering pomposity, Branagh seems to be playing Peter Sellers in "I'm All Right Jack," the old Boulting brothers comedy.)
"Pirate Radio" can be commended to those who love the period and its music, or who enjoy the actors involved. (Emma Thompson and January Jones are also on hand, although so briefly you wonder if they just happened to be visiting the set the day their scenes were shot.) But the movie's a scattershot affair. And the ending is so wildly overdone that (spoiler here) it takes the whole picture down with the ship.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "2012," also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we've got on "Pirate Radio."
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