This weekend found me catching the latest Philip Seymour Hoffman film — Pirate Radio. The story is very loosely based on actual events regarding a radio station broadcasting into England from a cargo ship out at sea during the mid-1960s.
On-screen text tells us that the majority of England are fans except for British government officials who see the “pirates” as blights on English morality and a danger to the general well-being of the nation. What I found most interesting about the story is that it so radically departs from the impression the previews gave. I suspect this might have to do with late editing. There was industry talk about the potential of this film to draw an audience and I believe it was delayed a bit getting out. In fact, it’s another movie where a couple of key scenes from the previews don’t actually appear in the finished product. I’m not saying the unexpected course change is a bad thing. In fact, for me, I think it worked out just fine. What I did expect was a very big tug of war between the wily radio pirates and the well-funded government. There’s actually very little of that anywhere to be found. Instead it’s mainly a story about the general life of those on the ship when the driving force is rock and roll and everything that embodies. Free love, free thinking, endless possibilities and the reality that while all of that is just peachy it still takes place among human beings who are fraught with their own personal demons and needs. In that regard I think the film would have been better served keeping its original title, The Boat That Rocked. It fits far better to what’s presented.
The acting is superb throughout. Hoffman gives us a performance that I think he could have done in his sleep and yet it’s still wonderful. The great Bill Nighy is here as well in the role of the general manager and plays his part spot-on though I wish we got to learn more about him. Another key role is that of a legendary DJ played by Rhys Ifans to absolute perfection. This guy impresses me more every time I see him. He played the messy roommate in Notting Hill so well that when I saw him here it took me quite a few scenes to realize who the heck it was! The government side is covered well by Kenneth Branagh in the main authority role and supported by Jack Davenport playing a character with a name normally reserved for Bond film women — Twatt. Keep an eye out also for a brief appearance by Emma Thompson playing the upscale mother of the main young character.
The film is far from perfect. The story isn’t very deep. We get several paper-thin characters and a few scenes (like an entire wedding part) that don’t do anything to move the story forward. That said I still enjoyed the film enough to say it’s among the best films I’ve seen this year. To get to that plateau you’ll need to be able to let go a few of the silly things some of the characters resort to and it’s essential that you be a music fan. Just being a good music fan, in fact, will pretty much assure you have a good time here. The film is loaded with fantastic music. Be sure also to stick around through a good chunk of the credits to enjoy a wonderful visual history of album covers spanning the entire history of rock. In the end you get a film that can be a bit disjointed but that keeps you laughing and rocking and that’s worth the price of admission.