In the United States, we take rock'n'roll radio for granted because Top 40 radio has been around since the 1950s in most parts of the country.
But as Richard Curtis' new comedy, Pirate Radio, shows, that wasn't the case in England. The government controlled the BBC and allotted only a couple of hours each week for the primal magic of rock'n'roll - and this, even after the Beatles exploded and rocked the world.
The British invasion? Everywhere but Great Britain, apparently.
The solution for some was what was known as pirate radio, commandeering the airwaves to blast the killer beat to the hungry masses. In England, that meant literally taking to the high seas, beaming the music from ships anchored in international waters, where a broadcasting license wasn't needed. These stations drew huge audiences, hungry for steady exposure to the burgeoning new sound. They also drove uptight government officials batty with their celebration of a beat-centric, guitar-twanging, hedonistic music.
Rock'n'roll, like information, wants to be free.
Or at least so Curtis would have us believe. He's constructed a sometimes witty, often shaggy tale about a wild and hairy crew - a kind of floating commune aboard a freighter rigged out as a radio station. Since movies need conflict, they find themselves squarely in the crosshairs of one Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), a priggishly authoritarian government official, who vows to remove this scurrilous influence from the public airwaves, one way or another.
And that's pretty much it - which makes Pirate Radio fun but sketchy, a collection of bits roughly sorted into an order that resembles a plot. Most of the parts involving Sir Alistair (Branagh is quite funny with his slow burn and little Hitler mustache) deal with him bullying a subordinate to find or create a loophole to close down the station. And most of the bits on the ship have to do with sex, drugs, personal hygiene and show-biz egos, occasionally sidetracking to proselytize for the soul-saving powers of pop music.
The audience's surrogate is Carl (Tom Sturridge), or Young Carl, as he is nicknamed, who's been kicked out of private school and farmed out to station owner Quentin (Bill Nighy), by Carl's mother, one of Quentin's former conquests. Carl becomes a kind of dogsbody for the station staff, doing their bidding and absorbing their wisdom. He's young, innocent and cute, impressionable (but a bit of a cipher as Sturridge plays him).
Through Young Carl, we get to know the station's swinging air staff, including the wonderfully droll Quentin and his randy, rebellious and reclusive DJs, played by, among others, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Rhys Darby and Nick Frost.
Each has his moment, whether it's Ifans strutting like a peacock as a returning star back from America, Hoffman threatening to say the "F" word on the air or Frost, as the ship's most unlikely cocksman. If there's a highlight, it's a game of chicken between Ifans and Hoffman to determine who's top dog, a scene that winds up with both of them climbing to the yardarm (and regretting the decision almost immediately).
Still, the virginity-losing scenes for Carl and some of the other scraps that have been sewed into this crazy-quilt script don't all measure up, particularly to some of Curtis' earlier work (including Four Weddings and A Funeral and Love Actually). It's obvious he's fond of this material - but it's just as obvious that he's got more affection than punchlines.
So while it's enjoyable in a lazy way, Pirate Radio feels a bit trifling. Given his apparent passion for the period and the subject, it's disappointing that all Curtis can come up with is this film.
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