Boys will be boys and often at top volume in Pirate Radio, Richard Curtis’s fanciful fiction about rebel broadcasters who, in the mid-1960s, blasted British airwaves and eardrums with the Stones, the Kinks and the Who, among other youth-quaking greats of the era. Stuffed with playful character actors and carpeted with wall-to-wall tunes, the film makes for easy viewing and easier listening, even if Curtis, who wrote and directed, has nothing really to say about these rebels for whom rock ’n’ roll was both life’s rhyme and its reason.
Borrowed from the annals of the strange but true, the story opens in 1966, before the British invasion had breached Britain’s official radio channels, run by the British Broadcasting Corporation. In his book Selling the Sixties: The Pirates and Pop Music Radio, Robert Chapman writes that the government’s cultural guardians responded to rock ’n’ roll with degrees of indifference and hostility: “BBC policy makers continued to go about their cultural missionary work much as they always had done, selectively retrieving a folk tradition here, acting as a kindly public service benefactor there, bestowing sponsorship upon those deemed worthy of official approval.” Although the BBC played a few weekly hours of rock, it largely, aided by the government, kept the noise down.
To fill that musical gap (and to serve real commercial interests), pirate radio stations dropped anchor off the British coast and began beaming rock ’n’ roll to a grateful nation (some 20 million listeners). In Pirate Radio, the tuneful epicenter qua bad-boys club is a tanker on which some dozen men, D.J.’s and various supporting players, including a token woman (and lesbian), taunt the government scolds with Jimi Hendrix and Dusty Springfield. Rising to the rebels’ bait with increasing apoplectic rage is Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh, wearing a mustache and cartoon sneer), a government minister who tries to shut the pirates down so he can keep the nation safe with regulated doses of high culture and educational programming.
Curtis alludes to the subtleties of this simmering culture war a few times by flanking Sir Alistair with art, including an abstract blob that looks like a Henry Moore sculpture. Sir Alistair’s snobbery and paternalism make him the enemy, and his position makes him a potentially interesting one. But Curtis isn’t concerned with exploring why gatekeepers might want to maintain the divide between high and popular culture. He wants to party. So he piles on the comic high jinks, lobs the jokes and cranks the splendid tunes, which is fine even if he tends to cue many of these for the hard of thinking: playing Leonard Cohen’s So Long Marianne, for instance, to accompany a heartbreaker named Marianne (Talulah Riley).
Marianne plays a mean trick on the ship’s innocent in residence, Carl (Tom Sturridge), who’s under the wing of the renegades’ leader, Quentin (Bill Nighy, reliably amusing). A tasty treat played by January Jones, on hiatus from driving Don Draper up a wall in Mad Men, plays an even meaner trick on another of the ship’s D.J.’s. Both female characters are irrelevant, which sums up the film’s interest in women, at least when vertical. The truer romance involves rival D.J.’s played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rhys Ifans, both fine, who take turns stealing scenes as Curtis gamely invokes the spirit of Richard Lester (A Hard Day’s Night”) and, every so often, throws in another meaningless aerial shot of the ship.