A film review by Craig J. Koban November 21, 2009
2009, R, 116 mins.
2009, R, 116 mins.
The Count: Philip Seymour Hoffman / Quentin: Bill Nighy / Gavin:
Rhys Ifans / Carl: Tom Sturridge / Dormandy: Kenneth Branagh /
Charlotte: Emma Thompson
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.
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!
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
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).
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
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
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?
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.”
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.
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.