Forever etched in our collective unconscious as a black-and-white clip of hysterical Beatles fans, England's youth in the 60s was effectively starved for rock and roll. Embargoed by the cultural ministry and dished out by the BBC in single-hour radio servings, the vulgar new sound had been rationed, leaving fans begging, "please sir..." Then, the story goes, a savvy American businessman heard them (as is often the case). Don Pierson flew to England, and launched three "American-style" pirate radio stations, delivering rock to the people 24 hours a day. Broadcasting from boats docked off the coast, these and other outlaw set-ups that followed were operating without crown-issued permits. By 1966, however, a reported 25 million people (half the population of England) would nevertheless tune in every day to get their fix.
Given this interesting premise, especially in light of today's murky issues of digital pirating, Pirate Radio, a fictional ensemble-comedy about a group of radio DJs on the hypothetical "Radio Rock" ship, might have been excellent. Add also that it features Philip Seymour Hoffman doing the best he can as the "Count" a Texas-import too-cool-for-school radio DJ—but a great back-story and Hoffman's mere presence is not enough to save this one from sinking.
What director Richard Curtis hath brought us is the 60s repurposed for the quirk generation, a period piece that would likely embarrass any self-respecting radio DJ from that era. Instead of using recent history as a backdrop for a good plot, Curtis morphs history into a Yellow Submarine cartoon, simplifying the events into a battle of hippie swashbucklers (overgrown DJ-sailors who take full advantage of loosened sexual mores) versus stuffy government suits irrationally hell-bent on spoiling the fun (they bellow villainous lines like "find me a loophole in the law!").
The DJ underdogs are a motley crew of stock characters. As they speak in turn, we are introduced to the quiet old guy, the cuckold, the silent don juan, the news nerd, the suave business man, the lesbian, the black guy, and the private-school dropout ingénue. The coming-of-age of this last one (played by the clay-faced Tom Sturridge) has been assigned as the lynchpin for a sub-plot, but it feels thrown in to fill in the gaps between the synch-licensing deals that run expensive songs back-to-back with little provocation. The soundtrack, as expected is good, (The Stones, The Who, The Kinks, plus some more obscure tracks) but it's been pointed out that many of the songs post-date 1966.
The historical inaccuracies are perhaps the crowning failure of Pirate Radio, but also the most obvious indication of how substance has here been replaced by an easily digestible surface. From the too-costumey wardrobe (beret: check, pointed collar: check, velvet jacket: yes!) to the twee interiors, this candy-colored fantasy ship looks like the set of an ironic advertisement for a telephone carrier. Though Curtis has every right to use an interesting aspect of musical history as a jumping-off point to produce an outrageous fictional comedy with a killer soundtrack, like this summer's Taking Woodstock, it's condescending to feed us, so soon, crisp nostalgic images completely drained of the cultural politics they stood for. Then again, it would be disingenuous to assume that the writer of Four Weddings and A Funeral and Love Actually was going to make another Almost Famous.
Opens November 13