No movie can be all bad when juiced up with a soundtrack of more than 50 classic rock tunes.
The best thing to say about Richard Curtis' "Pirate Radio" is that it's all about the music, man. The Kinks, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Yardbirds, Jimi Hendrix — these are the stars of "Pirate Radio," and the well-chosen songs are the main thing keeping the film afloat.
The movie's merry deejays, blasting illicit rock 'n' roll into stodgy mid-1960s Britain from a boat offshore, are mere roadies, bearing great songs in service of a sloppy story that has about as much to do with the spirit of rock as a Casey Kasem top-10 countdown.
Writer-director Curtis takes his inspiration from the offshore renegades he listened to as a boy, a time when official British broadcasts virtually ignored rock music and floating radio stations filled the void.
"Pirate Radio" is true to Curtis' boyhood memories — it's a child's vision of sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll.
The sex is AM radio sex — safe, tame, almost chaste, and talked about more than experienced, played for laughs more than lust. The only narcotic seems to be the music itself — lulling the big cast of characters into a weird seafaring complacency that's almost as sedate and orderly as the society against which this music supposedly is rebelling.
It's a big disappointment when you consider the potentially explosive combination of Curtis' supergroup of comic talent. Among the troupe: Philip Seymour Hoffman (the epitome of the hardworking rock journalist in "Almost Famous"), Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans (supreme scene-stealers of past Curtis productions), Nick Frost (the delightful oaf of "Shaun of the Dead").
Curtis gathers these guys and others (Rhys Darby, Ralph Brown, Ike Hamilton and Katherine Parkinson among them) as deejays and support personnel aboard Radio Rock, a tanker anchored in the North Sea broadcasting pop tunes around-the-clock, defying British government efforts to shut them down.
The filmmaker assigns them traits and quirks — Frost's a tubby ladies man, Hamilton's the shy guy, Brown's the reclusive wee-hours record spinner — introduces a newbie to the crew (Tom Sturridge as their leader's teenage godson), then waits for musical magic to happen.
It never does. Mostly a hodgepodge of music montages and prolonged, occasionally funny gags, "Pirate Radio" spends a lot of time talking about how great rock music is but only captures its soul through the actual playlist of songs.
The experiences and credos of these maritime rockers are about as inspiring as the pranks and prattlings of a third-rate college radio station.
Most of the women in "Pirate Radio" are bland groupies, Curtis apparently naming some of them for the music-video moments he can craft to particular tunes, the Turtles' "Elenore," Leonard Cohen's "So Long Marianne." Emma Thompson does add a note of grace in a small role late in the movie.
Curtis emulates the loose, disjointed style of "M-A-S-H" but stuffs his anecdotal scenes into a fairly conventional narrative — rowdy bad boys against mean old authority (Kenneth Branagh, shallowly playing the British official charged with putting pirate rock out of business).
As the lone American among the deejays, Hoffman captures some of the live-for-the-music philosophy he embodied in "Almost Famous." As the boat's skipper, Nighy is wry and droll but far more genteel than you want in a man overseeing his own little rock rebellion; you keep waiting and hoping for the shameless, lawless old rocker Nighy played in Curtis' "Love Actually" to emerge.
Ifans (the batty roommate of "Notting Hill") is even more restrained, downright dull with his self-satisfied mugging as a swell-headed super deejay.
Some of this gang inflict the sort of hurt and betrayal on comrades that could have broken up the unbreakable Rolling Stones at their zenith. Yet they remain a happy, floating family, rowing together in such solidarity that "Pirate Radio" just safely clings to shore.
There's more Partridge Family hugginess than sedition and subversion behind this rock 'n' roll story.