Movie review: Pirate Radio

(Three stars)

The 1960s soundtrack can almost float this boat all by itself. And when the DJs on board the British pirate radio ship aren't doing needle drops on vinyl by The Who, The Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Martha and the Vandellas and other rock 'n' roll legends, the exuberant performances of the cast keep the comedy by writer-director Richard Curtis ("Love Actually") upbeat.

Operating in the North Sea, the pirates transmit the mid-1960s explosion of pop rock to British portable radios, homes and workplaces. While the stuffy government-sanctioned BBC won't play the popular music for even an hour a day, Radio Rock (based on the famed Radio Caroline) offers a "countdown to ecstasy" all day and all of the night. Twenty-three million listeners tune in.

Upper-class Quentin (Bill Nighy) helms the old fishing trawler and its motley radio crew who gain star status across the U.K. Philip Seymour Hoffman is electrifying as The Count, an American who lives for the music and threatens to utter the F-word on British radio for the first time. He shares the airwaves with a legendary DJ (Rhys Ifans of "Elizabeth: The Golden Age"), an unlikely ladies' man (Nick Frost of "Hot Fuzz"), a sweet-natured Irishman (Chris O'Dowd of "Vera Drake") and an assortment of distinct personalities (including Rhys Darby of "Yes Man," Tom Wisdom of "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" and Ralph Brown of "Caught in the Act").

But the coming-of-age story really belongs to the sensitive Carl (Tom Sturridge of "Vanity Fair"), whose free-spirited mother (Emma Thompson) shipped him off to his godfather's boat. Expelled from an all-boys school, Carl moves to the all-male ship -- lesbian cook (Katherine Parkinson of "Easy Virtue") excepted. The frat-house atmosphere is just what you'd expect: lots of smoking, alcohol and sex (when "girls" are invited aboard every second Saturday).

Scenes cut back and forth from the antics on Radio Rock to the rapt listeners and austere government minister (Kenneth Branagh) who wants to shut the pirates down. Danny Cohen's lensing, the costuming and the production design capture the period well.

The narrative, though, goes adrift. More character- than conflict-driven, the story floats aimlessly in the middle of the film, buoyed by the acting and music. Often the song selections seem too pat. When the fetching Marianne (Talulah Riley of "The Summer House") hops onboard, you know Leonard Cohen will soon be growling "so long" to her. Elenore (January Jones of "Mad Men") offers the perfect excuse for the eponymous song by The Turtles.

Ultimately the bonds of friendship and a willingness to live and die for the music give the movie what it seeks: a reason for being.

Rated R for language, and some sexual content including brief nudity. 1 hour, 55 minutes.

— Susan Tavernetti


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