Richard Curtis is a filmmaker who thrives on chaos. From Four Weddings and a Funeral to Notting Hill to Love Actually, Curtis takes great joy in huddling an ensemble of misfits together, connecting them loosely and then sitting back and watching them all become a messy family. Some people thought he bit off more than he could chew with Love Actually, a charming collection of mini'romantic comedies strung together by the strands of the Christmas spirit. Those people, of whom I am not a part, will feel validated by Pirate Radio, a film that bites off huge chunks of plot and nearly chokes on them.
In essence, Pirate Radio is loosely based on Radio Caroline and Radio London, pirate stations on boats anchored just off the U.K. coast that broadcast rock music at a time (the 1960s) when it was mostly banned there. The film features a crew of chain-smoking DJs who live for music and become gods to a community of secret listeners. Day and night, the fellows (led by 'the Count,â?� played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in his Almost Famous Lester Bangs persona) treat their audience to the sweet sounds of Otis Redding, the Kinks, the Who, Dusty Springfield and other forbidden goodies, while onboard, the DJs ' young and old, skinny and fat, cool and nerdy ' indulge in 'the dark side of rock & roll.â?�
The movie cuts back and forth between the boat's high jinks and the quest on land by the U.K. government to kill the fun, for no other reason than to preserve proper 'morals.â?� (It's a scene reminiscent of Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd's pious theatrics last year, when he shut down a Winter Haven hip-hop pirate station, claiming it 'broadcasted gangsta rap with violently offensive languageâ?� and served to 'glamorize and encourage criminal gangster activity.â?�) As the pompous moralizer, Kenneth Branagh turns in one of the strangest, most cartoonish performances in recent memory. His scheming belongs in a much different, lesser movie, as does much of the melodramatic final act.
But on the ship, as seen through the eyes of 'Young Carlâ?� (an adequate Tom Sturridge), we're treated to scenes of musically endowed greatness. Curtis has an innate sense for rousing music cues (as evidenced by the perfect usage of 'Both Sides Nowâ?� and 'Here With Meâ?� in Love Actually) and he's given himself an excuse to go wild with that ability. In one scene, when Carl is introduced to his would-be paramour, he sees her in three strategic jump cuts set to Otis Redding's opening a cappella declaration on 'These Arms of Mine.â?� 'These,â?� he sees Marianne's (actress Talulah Riley's) stunning face; 'arms,â?� we're closer on her; 'of mineâ?� and we have a full view of her beauty. It's a sequence worth the price of admission, especially when Curtis calls back to the character later with Leonard Cohen's 'So Long, Marianneâ?� in the background. Even if you're not a music fanatic, it's beyond rewarding.