I like Richard Curtis. I really do. The man directed “Love Actually” for heaven’s sake, crafting one of the most charming and stark romantic comedies of the last 30 years. But his “Pirate Radio” is a flawed piece of work, at times utterly paralyzed by muddled whimsy. It’ll take some effort from the viewer to sort through this cluttered feature film, but the reward is an opportunity to witness profound respect for the power of music, articulated by a throng of gifted, uninhibited actors Curtis spends most of the feature trying to corral more than simply direct.
It’s the mid-1960s, and British radio is essentially ignoring the rise of iconic rock acts as they tear through popular culture. Here to help the infection is the boat Radio Rock, home to a pirate radio station, which employs some of the fiercest on-air talent around, under the guidance of Captain Quentin (Bill Nighy). For DJs Gavin (Rhys Ifans), The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Dr. Dave (Nick Frost), Bob (Ralph Brown), Simon (Chris O’Dowd), and Angus (Rhys Darby), life on the ship is pure recreation, with rock blaring all day and excitable women making occasional visits. On land, government minister Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) is looking to shut down pirate radio for good, bringing ambitious civil servant Twatt (Jack Davenport) in to help concoct a plan that will stop the supposed filth from poisoning the populace.
Actually, “Pirate Radio” was “The Boat That Rocked” for most of its worldwide theatrical life, undergoing a name change and runtime reduction (about 20 minutes was cut) to help streamline a film for American audiences that wasn’t having too much luck at the box office. An awful replacement title for sure, but the edits are welcome in an already crowded motion picture. Curtis, looking to do for the British Invasion and virginity what he did for relationships in “Love Actually,” doesn’t fashion a suitable concentration for the material, which wanders around on a quest to be profound and giddy, but mostly comes across blind. Curtis can’t locate a suitable tenor for his material, instead spraying the screen with wild personalities, delicious soundtrack selections (including The Kinks, The Beach Boys, and The Who), and vague declarations of rebellion.
I’m not suggesting “Pirate Radio” is a joyless experience; with a cast this diverse and willing to please, the film maintains a few highlights, most concerning the on-air antics of the DJs as they push the barriers of taste and revel in the majestic music. Curtis arranges a community of competition and friendship to give the cast something to chew on, leading to some strained moments of tension, especially the unconvincing rivalry between The Count and hipster Gavin (which requires the pair to play a film-stopping game of chicken as they climb to the highest area of the ship to prove their masculinity). Sexual games are also afoot, with plenty of giggly groupies around to help pollute the serene air onboard.
The film’s lead is actually Carl (Tom Sturridge), a teenaged virgin sent to the ship for purposes unclear to him at the outset. Carl is the audience POV for the Radio Rock, who struggles to keep track of all the treachery and bravado of the staff. His subplot carries insufficient weight, and the push from the DJs to help Carl advance sexually leads to hilariously melodramatic bouts of implausible betrayal. Curtis is adamant to keep Carl the center of attention, but Sturridge’s unappealing performance (mostly made of mope and greasy hair) mixed with the script’s shortcomings fail to further the madcap mood of the film.
Curtis lunges for a massive grand finale, not content with the Dormandy subplot to act as the film’s only threat, allowing matters to frantically dissolve just to place a definitive, defiant exclamation point on the picture. The director’s intent appears to be the celebration of rock music and its enduring, tongue-extended spirit, and the movie finds occasional inspiration with this commotion. However, by the conclusion, “Pirate Radio” is asking for more than it gives, making the whole act of music appreciation feel silly, especially if it means indulging in this much pointless hysteria. “Pirate Radio” slips out of Curtis’s control early on, and try as he might with this sparkling cast and soundtrack supremacy, the film never returns to solid ground.