Swinging London might not have been quite as swinging as most of us thought.
As the new film “Pirate Radio” informs us, 1966 was at the center of the greatest era of British rock ‘n’ roll. Yet the nation’s radio stations wouldn’t play even a single hour of pop music a day.
The British are a resourceful and freedom-loving people, though, and even better, live on an island. So pirate radio ships docked off the coast gave the people what the people’s airwaves didn’t — 24 hours a day of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll ever made.
“Pirate Radio,” called “The Boat That Rocked” in its native Britain, weaves a hilarious and even touching fictional story around those facts. Writer-director Richard Curtis is better known on these shores for writing romantic comedies such as “Four Weddings and a Funeral” and “Love Actually.” “Pirate Radio” shows he’s just as good at exploring the love men and women have for great music as he is at surveying the feelings they have for each other.
The motley group of disc jockeys working for Radio Rock is seen through the eyes of newcomer Carl (Tom Sturridge), whose mother (Emma Thompson, in a charming cameo) has put him in the care of his shipowner godfather, Quentin (Bill Nighy) after he’s kicked out of boarding school. Quentin can’t even remember if he has met his “favorite godson” before: “There was a lost decade, so I always have to check.”
The ship is an unlikely destination for reform. Unlikely ladies’ man Dave (Nick Frost) tries to help Carl lose his virginity, only to steal Carl’s date for himself. Midnight Mark (Tom Wisdom) is also a lothario, but because he doesn’t speak, no one knows how he does it. Simon (Chris O’Dowd) is unlucky in love until an angel (or is it a devil?) played by January Jones comes his way.
Apart from the lesbian cook, girls are allowed onboard only once a week, so the difficult friendships between these mostly cocky men are what matter most. The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the center of the group, a flamboyant guy who’d rather open a new record than a girl’s bra. He’s terribly jealous, then, when legendary DJ Gavin joins the boat.
Gavin is a real star — and so, surprisingly enough, is Rhys Ifans, who plays him. Mr. Ifans was memorable as Spike, the embarrassing roommate of Hugh Grant in “Notting Hill,” which Mr. Curtis wrote. Here, he’s transformed — sexy and naughty, the kind of disc jockey about whom women spend their nights fantasizing. This is a star-making performance — though the film is filled with talent.
Mr. Nighy is always charismatic and quite possibly is the coolest actor over 50. But everyone here is great, including boisterous Rhys Darby as DJ Angus, beautiful Bond girl Gemma Arterton as one of the visiting girls, and Kenneth Branagh and Jack Davenport as the minister and his assistant who want to shut down these indecent stations. These government thugs are caricatures, but uproariously funny nonetheless.
“Pirate Radio” is filled with great music, of course — the Kinks, the most British of British bands, open and close the film, and there’s more rollicking good fun in between. (Though the DJs aren’t the stereotypical music obsessives of so many other books and films about rock.)
“Pirate Radio” is, more than anything else, a celebration of life and the enjoyment that can be found in it, authority be damned. Swinging London wouldn’t have been nearly so much fun without the group of men who spun its soundtrack many miles away. Mr. Curtis has delightfully re-created that storied era, making “Pirate Radio” the most fun you’ll have in a movie theater this year.
TITLE: “Pirate Radio”
CREDITS: Written and directed by Richard Curtis
RATING: R (language, and some sexual content, including brief nudity)
RUNNING TIME: 120 minutes
WEB SITE: pirateradiomovie.com
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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