In the mid-'60s, the BBC more or less refused to play rock & roll over the airwaves, and since they controlled all of British radio at the time, that meant the teenagers and hip adults couldn't hear tracks by such soon-to-be-legendary bands as the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Kinks. In response, a number of enterprising businesspeople anchored boats just a few miles off the British coast, and broadcast the banned music 24 hours a day back to the mainland. These became known as "pirate radio" stations, and such a colorful piece of history would seem to provide a wealth of rich material for a British writer and director as talented as Richard Curtis.
The movie opens with the recently expelled Carl (Tom Sturridge) arriving at Radio Rock, one of the most popular pirate radio stations in all of London. Carl's godfather, Quentin (Bill Nighy), who owns the boat and the station, gives the young man a job and shy Carl soon meets the outlandish DJs who make Radio Rock a must-listen for kids on shore. Among the motley crew members are "The Count" (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the lone American on the ship and a true believer in the power and glory of the music; the horny, chunky Dave (Nick Frost); the quiet, impossibly handsome Mark (Tom Wisdom); and the drugged-out proto-hippie Bob (Ralph Brown). The group keeps things lively with lots of shenanigans, including the Count's efforts to say the F-word on the air, their intricate schemes to get Carl laid, and the creative ways in which the crew fights back against the sustained efforts of a repressed government bureaucrat (Kenneth Branagh) to wipe out all the pirate stations.
In his previous films, Curtis has shown a masterful ability to juggle large ensembles. Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love Actually burst with three-dimensional characters that have distinct arcs -- they grow and change no matter how little screen time they might get. And that's what's missing entirely from Pirate Radio. With the exception of Carl -- who, it turns out, got on the ship because he believes the father he never met works there -- everybody in the film is a personality rather than a person.
Of course, Curtis is too talented to not serve up some funny moments with each of them -- the remarkable stupidity of Carl's roommate is a first-rate recurring gag, as is the simmering feud between the Count and Gavin (Rhys Ifans), a once-legendary DJ who makes an unexpected return to Radio Rock. Unfortunately, because these characters never become three-dimensional, the movie turns out to be a series of incidents rather than an actual story. To put it in rock terms, Pirate Radio is a collection of songs rather than a coherent album -- and while there are a couple of good tracks, the majority of them are unremarkable.