A film review by Craig J. Koban November 21, 2009


2009, R, 116 mins.

The Count: Philip Seymour Hoffman / Quentin: Bill Nighy / Gavin: Rhys Ifans / Carl: Tom Sturridge / Dormandy: Kenneth Branagh / Charlotte: Emma Thompson

Written and directed by Richard Curtis

Although many of the story elements and characters in Richard Curtis’ PIRATE RADIO are fictitious, there is an unmistakable real-life catch to the premise behind this ensemble Brit comedy.  

Yes, as unbelievable as it may seem, the British Government and the BBC – during the absolute zenith and Golden Age of Rock and Roll music – only played around an hour of rock music per day.  Yup.  No fooling here, folks.  One hour.  Sixty minutes.  Out of a possible 24 hours.  That means that at a time when gigs like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who (to name a few among many too numerous to mention) were starting to hit their artistic strides, the general public listening to government sponsored radio heard very little of them.  

Absolute sacrilege!  How did people survive such a musically impoverished period? 

Well, through pirate radio signals, of course, and Curtis’ film here is a heartfelt, exuberant, frequently hilarious, and stupendously crowd-pleasing bit of make-believe mixed with reality-based storytelling of the period in question.  We learn in the film  – during the mid-to-late 1960’s – that a squadron of rogue DJs had just about enough of the UK government’s culturally conceited ideas about what they could and could not play on the radio.  As a result, they banded together and defied the mighty nation’s laws and decided to broadcast whatever rock they wanted to, 24/7, from a boat that was anchored off of the coast of England.  Realizing that the masses – both young and old – have felt neutered from the lack of music that the BBC played during this period, “pirate radio” took off and became enormously successful by gaining millions of listeners, much to the deep chagrin and consternation of the government.  Not only is this story a commentary about a band of rebels defiantly flipping the bird to the established authority, but it also is a sweet and soulful ballad to ideas of love and free will.  These DJs were an isolated and  liberated society on their boat and they lived their lives according to their own brand of rules and decorum.  

In short: they rocked hard!!  Hells yeah!

Radio Rock – as the pirate radio signal is called in the film – is the brainchild of an eccentric mogul named Quentin (Bill Nighy), and, in 1966, he gathered together a relative who’s who of the DJ industry to command his technically legal, but bureaucratically spat-on radio on the high seas.  At the helm is a lone Yankee known as The Count (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), a bearded, grizzled, and spunky bloke that uses his childlike energy and passion for rock as a catalyst for the others around him.  He is rounded off by a group that is just as colorful as him:  There is Bob (Ralph Brown) who works the dreaded 3am to 6am slot, and whom most of the crew has barely ever seen; the suave, pudgy, and smooth talking Dave (Nick Frost); the mysterious midnight man Mark (Tom Wisdom); the good natured, but hopelessly naďve, Simon (Chris O’ Dowd) who is convinced that no one really likes or appreciates him; a lone female cook named Felicity (Katherine Parkinson) who distinguishes herself beyond her gender by being a lesbian; and finally we have the only serious competition to The Count’s throne as the alpha male DJ, the world-renowned Gavin (Rhys Ifans) who uses a considerable amount of reptilian charm and sexually suggestive banter on the radio to attract his core audience. 

Life aboard the ship is pure sex, drugs, and...yes...rock and  roll, which makes it a peculiar venue for a mother to send her teenage boy to, but that’s precisely where Carl (Tom Sturridge) finds himself.  His mother (in a short, but fine cameo by Emma Thompson) becomes so angered by her son’s expulsion from school that she sends him to Radio Rock to be under the watchful eye of his godfather (who just happens to be Quentin).  Despite what she thinks will be a decent place for her son to straighten himself out, the boat and cliental itself is anything but moral and righteous, especially considering the deeply hedonistic lifestyle that everyone seems to be engaging in on a regular basis (boatloads of women are often transported in for the “needs” of the jockeys).   

Carl is a shy and inhibited virgin, but this does not stop his own godfather from trying to get him some much-needed action in the sack.  Quentin – being an abnormally accommodating relative - even attempts to help Carl score by inviting his cute niece on board for a quick one night shag.  Carl is also befriended, of sorts, by the incessantly promiscuous Dave, whom tries to impart his womanly advice to Carl, only to thwart his attempts twice because of his own weakness towards the woman that Carl is interested in.  At least Gavin is a better love guru to Carl, lending him a much-needed condom at a crucial moment; he also offers him some guidance about using it (“When you done with it, rinse it off under the tap and use it again”).  Carl is not the only one that has trouble with the ladies: Simon is so blindly inexperienced that, when he does manage to become engaged and married (while on the boat) to a gorgeous blond American bombshell, the marriage barely lasts a day before she finds herself smitten with another DJ.   

Life for the Radio Rock crew is a swinging and smashin' good time for all, but their controversial on-air antics (not to mention their predilection to playing music that the BBC won’t) deeply angers a government minister named Dormandy (a jubilantly deranged and venomous Kenneth Branagh), who teams up with his willing subordinate, the regrettably named Twatt (Jack Davenport) to find a way to utterly crush the radio signal once and for all.  Initially, Twatt’s (hee-hee) plans to squash Radio Rock are unmitigated failures, which is also not assisted by the fact that the freighter is not doing anything illegal, per se.   However, Twatt (hee-hee) is a resourceful government stooge and he soon discovers a way to circumvent the law in order to legally stop Radio Rock forever.  When he informs Dormandy of his plan, Branagh dryly retorts, “Good work, Twatt” with an uproarious subtlety.  Realizing that they are no match for the government and the law, the DJ crew of Radio Rock decide to concede, but not without an obligatory fight. 

Two things work stupendously in PIRATE RADIO: The first would definitely be its colorful, multiple Oscar nominated and winning cast, all of whom are a winning and spirited hoot throughout the film.  Curtis himself may just be one of the finest directors today at garnering uniformly hysterical comedic performances from a large ensemble cast (see FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL and, to a finer degree, LOVE ACTUALLY for other examples) and there are times in PIRATE RADIO where he handles all of these bawdy, free-wheeling, and raucous rock rebels with the command and assuredness of a Robert Altman.  The film is largely anchored by the liveliness of its oddball collection of eclectic DJs; they make the UK listeners swoon at their every word, but live anything but a rich celebrity lifestyle within the tiny, dingy, and darkened cabins aboard the ship.  In parcel with these contagiously droll and vivacious personalities is the film’s central theme of artistic censorship and free speech over public airways.  These pirate DJs, as flawed as many of them appear to be, were considered as individuals that championed music as a source of decency in the world for those that have no relative power, and they did so by going against those in power.  Considering the time and the government’s actions, what’s not to love about them? 

The second element that is to be cherished here is the film’s gloriously nostalgic soundtrack, which also helps to keep the whole enterprise wonderfully afloat and alive.  There are apparently over 60 cues from different artists on display here, ranging from The Beatles, The Stones, David Bowie, Cream, The Moody Blues…I could go on and on.  Some have complained that the film is too wall-to-wall with music, which they argue has all but snuffed out what narrative could have been evident here.  Yet, PIRATE RADIO is a rousing and unapologetic salute to the revered and legendary soundtrack of the decade, and the music here is of chief importance; it is the fuel that drives all of the impulses of its characters, right down to their defiant last stand against the government.  As Simon hysterically, but emotionally, reveals near the film’s conclusion, “My wife left me after 17 hours of marriage, but I survived because I live for music.  And now, with nothing else to live for, I am willing to die for it as well.” 

The collective performances in the film are also superlatively inspired and dryly funny throughout: Nick Frost – a frequent collaborator with Simon Pegg – is so perfectly tailored for his pleasure-seeking, self-gratifying lout with a heart of gold.  Hoffman’s Count excels because of the actor’s innate abilities at playing this type of surly and seditious radioman with just the right gruff inflection.  The film also is on really high comedic ground when you have two of the unmitigated great British comedic actors in Bill Nighy and Rhys Ifans sharing scenes together.  Is there a finer actor, I submit, that can play understated sarcasm and deliver slick one-liners with such an economy as Nighy?  He cracks me up with the slightest inkling of an eyebrow raise.  Then there is Kenneth Branagh as the uptight, priggish, and loathsome government man (complete with Hitler-esque moustache and side parted hairline) that engages in a textbook exercise in modulated overacting; he has not been this deliciously evil and unnerving in years, and seeing him cut his teeth into this villainous role is a rowdy good time.  Finally, there is a cameo by an American actress (whom I will not reveal) that shows up as Simon’s extremely short-lived bride that hides behind her Californian, beach babe face and blonde bimbo demeanor by participating in the most savagely cruel and darkly funny break-up scenes in a long time. 

PIRATE RADIO has not been without controversy: Firstly, the film was a critical failure when released under its original name, THE BOAT THAT ROCKED, in the UK earlier this year, and was admonished for its long running time.  It also has been chastised for not being historically accurate despite its advertising as being just that (the government, for example, did not ban rock completely; the popular music of the time was also pop, not rock; the DJs in the film were all composites of real personas, and the pirate radio operations were not a response to the BBC “banning” rock, but were spawned more out of financial and entrepreneurial endeavors).  Yet, all of that is beside the point, because Curtis’ leaner US print (reportedly 20 minutes shorter) is not vying for historical veracity, but rather for sheer entertainment value.  PIRATE RADIO has a few faults (like a story that is more a series of unrelated vignettes than anything else, not to mention that the final twenty minutes or so too easily echoes a very famous and recent nautical disaster film), but the overall film is an evocative, unhinged, riotously enjoyable time portal that pinpoints a past era’s innocent passion for a music form just in its infancy and the individuals who made a stand for its continued existence for future generations.   

The film concludes with title cards stating that, despite the end of pirate radio signals, rock would survive and is now played on 299 music stations 24 hours a day in the UK.   What was once, as Branagh’s Dormandy describes in the film, a “sewer of dirty commercialism and no morals” became the dominant musical form of the century.  

Hells yeah! 

  H O M E