A sideways tribute to legendary DJ John Peel (whose name is never mentioned in the broadly explanatory intertitles that bookend the film), Pirate Radio fabulizes the real story of how pirate radio stations broadcasting from off the coast of England ushered rock 'n' roll onto the airwaves of the BBC. What could be a genuinely interesting historical piece is instead turned into fluffy, Rolling Stone–style "talkin' 'bout my generation" self-congratulatory baby boomer back-patting—did you know that rock 'n' roll changed everything forever?—by way of a script so hammy and shallow that it can't even land as farce (e.g., the mean, old, repressed government bureaucrats in their comically gray halls of power).
Had they cast Jack Black in the film's lead role, you might have seen this coming. Instead, there's Philip Seymour Hoffman, who, perhaps sensing a script he could safely dead-man's-float through, opts to reprise his role as Lester Bangs from Almost Famous—and he even has another floppy-haired, moppet-faced scamp to mentor! His charge this time, Carl (adorable young limey Tom Sturridge, who IMDb claims "is good friends with Twilight star Robert Pattinson"), is onboard the Radio Rock boat by order of his posh, morally loose mum for reasons that make no sense but that you won't care about anyway, since Carl, like the rest of this movie's squandered ensemble, has all the character development of the Monkees. There's the groovy patriarch (Carl's godfather), the frazzled hippie, the black mod, the mute Jim Morrison clone, the lecherous proto–glam rocker, the lesbian, and your standard array of record nerds both bulbous and concave.
The overarching narrative, told in cuts from ship to shore, consists of some harrumphing minister's attempt to shut pirate radio down. In a tacked-on subplot (can a thing be tacked on to a thing that seems to be entirely made out of tacks?), Carl searches for the father he never knew among the ship's crew. There are several scenes of late-night conversations and games and high jinks meant to establish the camaraderie of the shipmates (who nevertheless "roger" each others' "birds" at every opportunity). There are many, many montages set to popular song.
The song choices—and make no mistake, this flimsy film is little more than an attempt to sell a soundtrack of catalog cuts to one of the only demographics that still buys CDs—are as unsubtle as anything, with selections corresponding literally to characters' names, so that when Carl is feeling glum about Marianne, we hear Leonard Cohen's "So Long, Marianne." Speaking of, most of the film's little winning humor is mined from Carl's tragically awkward attempts to lose his virginity (truly uncharted waters there).
What younger viewers might find most anachronistic and alien about all this isn't the boomer soundtrack or vintage fashions, but the idea that these people would risk their lives for records and the opportunity to broadcast them. These days, they'd just start a blog, there'd be no outlaw adventures on the high seas, and they wouldn't have literal boatloads of ladies clamoring for their attentions. Not that my generation's bitter about it or anything.