With Bill Nighy, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Tom Sturridge. Rated R for language, and some sexual content including brief nudity. 135 minutes.
It is the mid 1960s. While British groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are transforming modern pop music, the stodgy government-run BBC is barely playing rock ‘n’ roll. Thus the advent of “Pirate Radio,” in which offshore ships broadcast rock music around the clock to listeners starved for a choice. (The British title of PIRATE RADIO is, perhaps, less revealing: “The Boat That Rocked.”)
Though inspired by fact, this comedy by “Love Actually” and “Four Weddings And A Funeral” writer-director Richard Curtis is less a history lesson than a celebration of an era. Our entry into this world is Carl (Tom Sturridge), a teen kicked out of school and sent to spend some time with his godfather Quentin (Bill Nighy) in hopes of straightening him out. Quentin runs Radio Rock, which broadcasts into England from somewhere in the North Sea.
As much an ensemble piece as Curtis’s earlier films, it juggles a number of stories, from Carl searching for his father, to the lives of the various DJs on board, including two fighting it out as to who is the coolest top dog: The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) or Gavin (Rhys Ifans). Meanwhile, back in London, a government minister (Kenneth Branagh) has been given the task of shutting down these “immoral” outlets permanently.
While taking a slice of British broadcast history, Curtis is really celebrating the freewheeling ways and music of the 1960s. Aging Boomers may find this the most entertaining and nostalgic soundtrack since “The Big Chill,” featuring song after song that not only evokes an era but wryly comments on the action. Besides the shenanigans on the ship, Curtis also shows us how the broadcasts elated listeners starved for something more than the traditional music available on “official” radio. Used as punctuation for much of the film, Curtis cleverly builds to a climax in which it’s all tied together.
Although Curtis regular Hugh Grant is absent and much of the cast will be unknown to American viewers, there are a number of familiar faces, particularly for fans of Curtis’s earlier films. Nighy, who stole “Love Actually” as the aging rock star looking for a comeback hit, is delightful as the languid Quentin, too cool for words and content to let the DJs do their stuff. American star Hoffman and Ifans, who played Grant’s slovenly roommate in “Notting Hill,” have fun with a rivalry neither is allowed to tacitly acknowledge. Branagh is hilariously obnoxious as the uptight minister while his ex-wife Emma Thompson (memorable as the betrayed wife in “Love Actually” and many other films) has a cameo role as Carl’s mother with a past.
For Curtis fans who see “Love Actually,” “Four Weddings” and the TV series “Black Adder” as being in the pantheon of great comedy, this isn’t quite in that league. However, “Pirate Radio” will have you humming along and leave you with a big smile, something that can be said of few movies this year.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.