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Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009

Pirate Radio

Comedy pits Philip Seymour Hoffman against British Broadcasting Corporation

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At first, rock ’n’ roll didn’t fit the BBC’s mission of providing fair news reporting, cultural uplift and light entertainment. British rock fans strained to hear the new music through the static of American Forces Radio in Germany and other continental European stations. Finally, in sync with the Beatles and the mid-’60s rock explosion, enterprising businessmen set up radio stations on ships riding just outside British waters to evade the BBC’s broadcasting monopoly. They sold airtime to record labels and whoever wanted to pay to play the latest discs.

Pirate Radio is a highly fictionalized story of an imaginary seagoing station with the unimaginative name of Rock Radio. Philip Seymour Hoffman heads the ensemble cast as the lone Yank among the pirate ship’s limey oddballs, playing a pumped-up DJ spouting a hyper line of AM radio jive while spinning singles on the turntable. Kenneth Branagh is the boo-hiss villain, a Blue Meanie cabinet minister determined to silence Rock Radio by any means possible.

Grafted onto this uneven comedy of cultural rebellion is the story of Carl (Tom Sturridge), the virginal shipboard newbie initiated into the joy of sex and the camaraderie of rock ’n’ roll with the eccentrics and misfits who keep the music coming. Cut-aways to avid listeners gathered around radios in the United Kingdom show the influence of pirate radio on the body public.

Alas, director Richard Curtis should have hired a history consultant to ensure a few simple facts. Pirate Radio is set in 1966, yet half the music ostensibly played by this station wasn’t recorded for another year or two. Apparently, the DJs were so hip, they could hear the future. The script is also occasionally anachronistic. Was anybody concerned with “thinking outside the box” in 1966—a cliché that didn’t enter the language until decades later? And in those days, “cool” as a one-word exclamation was uttered only on chilly days. But, overall, the story captures some of the crackling outlaw excitement of pirate broadcasting as well as its impact. By 1967 the BBC decided to join the fray by establishing its own channel for the new music—in a noncommercial setting that probably provides a better analogy to the college radio of latter days than the payola-driven pirates.

The bawdy humor among the shipmates provides Pirate Radio with its funniest moments. However, Branagh’s crusade against rock itself is more like Monty Python on an off-episode than anything else.