By STEVE PERSALL
Times Film Critic
Hard to believe that as America welcomed the British rock 'n' roll invasion in the 1960s, an uptight English government wouldn't allow such trendsetters as the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Kinks to be played on national radio stations. But it's true, presented in Pirate Radio by writer-director Richard Curtis with his customary — some think annoying — ensemble romanticism.
Using an episodic style recalling 2003's Love Actually, Curtis creates another movie filled with colorful characters searching for a plot. That would be deadly for most films but like Curtis' directing debut, Pirate Radio isn't about people as much as an idea most viewers can't argue with. It could be subtitled Music Actually, for its swooning assertion that rock, like love, conquers all.
It's difficult not to be swept up in Curtis' ragged narrative when like-minded actors pull out all the nostalgic stops and the soundtrack continually throws classic rock in our ears. For most of its overlong running time, Pirate Radio is an infectious pop culture souffle, with a few sequences masterfully capturing a cultural phenomenon gripping the world one listener at a time.
On the other hand — the one with fingers impatiently drumming on the armrest rather than snapping in rhythm — Pirate Radio occasionally threatens to sink fast and deep. Credit the power of rock for keeping Curtis' movie afloat.
The rusty ship smuggling banned music ashore 24 hours a day carries a motley crew, led by an American DJ known as the Count (Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman). The Count feels a strong sense of duty to make ears bleed, to spin records like they're religious tokens healing crippled spirits. Hoffman plays rock's avenging angel to the hilt, although like every other character in Pirate Radio that's all he's required to do.
There's the obligatory outsider, cabin boy Carl (Tom Sturridge) serving as bemused tour guide, whose virginity is just another obstacle to overcome. Carl's godfather (indispensable Bill Nighy) is the ship's captain, maintaining a cheeky sense of order whenever his drug-addled instincts are in check. Other DJs include libidinous Dave (Nick Frost), the aptly named Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke) and the graveyard shift host Bob (Ralph Brown).
Midway through the cruise, a bolt of oily testosterone arrives in the form of legendary DJ Gavin (scene-stealing Rhys Ifans), whose inordinate cool ignites the Count's competitive spirit. They're all little boys playing with musical toys and boatloads of groupies delivered for fun. Just another bawdy thorn in the side of a British bureaucrat (Kenneth Branagh) scheming to end the indecency.
Round and round these characters go, like the LPs they spin. Curtis takes care of one issue then flits to the next, always with more energy than cumulative purpose. When the ship faces a climactic Titanic crisis, you can almost feel the life escaping from his script. But there's always an irresistible song playing, or noses thumbed at convention keeping Pirate Radio interesting. This isn't a great movie but you can surely dance to it.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs. tampabay.com/movies.