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MOVIE REVIEW : The 'Pirate Radio' boat is a rockin'; do come a knockin' : The plot might lose the rhythm sometimes, but the soundtrack and cast keep the '60s-set rock fable afloat.

November 13, 2009|BETSY SHARKEY | FILM CRITIC

"Pirate Radio," the new rock-saturated comedy that proves life really is better when it's set to a '60s soundtrack, is, to borrow from the Stones, "a gas! gas! gas!"

And borrow does it ever -- from the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, Hendrix, the Who, the Troggs, the Turtles, the Beach Boys, the Yardbirds, the Seekers, the List, um, make that, the list goes on . . . nearly 60 cuts in all in what may be the coolest music-video masquerading as a movie ever. Don't even bother resisting the urge to join in -- but quietly, please.

Filmmaker Richard Curtis, the hopeless romantic behind "Four Weddings and a Funeral," "Notting Hill" and "Love Actually," has written and directed yet another love letter, this one signed, sealed, delivered to the early rock era just as a tidal wave of groundbreaking British bands began hitting.

And it's hard not to feel the love as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, "Shaun of the Dead's" Nick Frost and others in the groovy ensemble spin this somewhat true but mostly tall tale of Parliament's fight to crush rock radio and the rogue broadcasters who went to sea to keep it afloat.

The story is set in the mid-'60s when British politicians, with Kenneth Branagh's Sir Alistair Dormandy as chief twit, decide to take down the nascent music trend because, really your lordship, two hours a week of that blasted drivel on the BBC is more than enough.

But these radio rebels quickly figure out that all they have to do is refit an ocean-going trawler with a towering antenna or two, drop anchor in international waters just beyond the minister's reach and partay. Parliament is not pleased, and a most curious clash of politics and culture ensues, even by British standards. (A monarchy still? Really?).

Not one to let too many facts gum up the works, Curtis spends most of the movie at sea having a grand time with his disc jockeys and his mix tapes. Hoffman as a legendary American DJ called the Count is the scruffy top dog in this animal house until the return of Gavin, with a velvet throat and a velvet coat (Ifans, probably best remembered for being naked in "Notting Hill," is just as amusing clothed).

You just know there's not enough mood music in the world to avert this testosterone showdown, and since boys will be boys, you also know it will entail death-defying acts of enormous stupidity. Though the showdown itself proves something of a bust, it's mostly because seeing Hoffman and Ifans parry between sets is so rich.

There's a coming-of-age story thrown in when station owner-manager Quentin (Nighy) takes in his godson, the rebellious Carl (a very appealing Tom Sturridge) because he's been acting out at school. A ship of fools with "Radio Rock" whitewashed on its deck and lots of liquor and drugs below might not be most mothers' first choice for getting the kid back on track, but Carl's mum is a bit of a legend too.

Despite his dubious mentors, young Carl does begin to figure out life, fall in love, face disappointment and put together a few missing pieces of his family tree (there are musical clues).

As Sir Dormandy's hate rises with each new tide, love comes by the boatload to Radio Rock as female fans motor out. The occasional weekend excursions work out nicely for the boys, who are otherwise left trying to change the mind of the boat's one femme, lesbian cook Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), who despite all offers stays the course.

There's Elenore "gee, I think you're swell," played by "Mad Men" beauty January Jones, who might be the marrying kind, and "Now so long" Marianne (Talulah Riley), whom Carl falls madly for. As you've no doubt surmised, there's a lyric to match nearly every beat of the story, and most of the mash-ups are clever enough that the music keeps you with the movie even when the occasional plot meltdown threatens to distract.

There are times, more than a few, when Curtis seems to run out of plot before he runs out of song rights. To keep the music pumping, he cuts in slices of fans having their own "rock moments" -- with transistors hidden under pillows, dancing across the commons, jiving in the kitchen, just about any place anyone could move and groove turns up in musical shorts tossed in everywhere. Depending on your personal appetite for all things '60s, you may tire of the hit parade before Curtis, though I didn't.

The filmmaker does get the vibe of the times right, if hyper-realized on occasion, with the film hitting many counterculture cross-currents, though only casually because "Pirate Radio" doesn't take itself too seriously and you shouldn't either. (Though a serious shout-out really must go to the costume and set design teams for the perfectly fabulous period details.)

Given the current thriving state of rock 'n' roll, you can guess at the ending, but the story's not really the point. This is a message movie, and the message of "Pirate Radio" is pretty simple: All you need is love, and you can get by with a little help from your friends . . . even if you can't use anything from the Beatles catalog.

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betsy.sharkey@latimes.com

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'Pirate Radio'

MPAA rating: R for language and some sexual content including brief nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

Playing: In general release

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