Any film that’s built around the fabulous music of the mid-1960’s starts out with one thing going for it: a great soundtrack. That Pirate Radio goes beyond that and offers up an entertaining and poignant story about the loss of innocence is what makes it a film well worth your time.
There was so much rock and roll coming out of Britain in the 1960’s that it’s generally referred to as the “British Invasion”, and it included bands like The Beatles, The Animals, Manfred Mann, Petula Clark, Herman’s Hermits, The Rolling Stones, Donovan, The Who, The Kinks, and The Dave Clark Five. What you probably didn’t know, though, was that the British Broadcasting Corporation (The “Beeb”) refused to play this “seditious” music and that the only rock that could be heard on the Brit airwaves was from pirate radio stations set up on old freighter and tanker ships anchored off the coast of England, in international waters.
That’s the basis for Pirate Radio, and the story, set in 1966, is simultaneously of the cast of characters that were the DJs and staff of the station and the British government officials who earnestly spent almost a year trying to find a loophole in the law that would let them shut down the broadcasts forever.
I really enjoyed Pirate Radio, both for the wonderful music and the witty storyline. I had no idea that this really had happened in England (and I was born there!) but sure enough, unlike the mock “based on real-life events” films like The Fourth Kind, you can justify seeing this funny movie by saying “mum, it’s a history film. really.”
The main character in the film is Carl (Tom Sturridge), who is a lost 18yo boy and the godson of the ever-dapper Radio Rock owner Quentin (Bill Nighy). Carl’s mum doesn’t know what to do with him and sends him to spend a few months on the ship, under the watchful eye of Quentin. Problem is, the boat is a floating discotheque of sins and everyone’s looking for ‘birds to shag’, drugs, smoke and every other manner of bad habit. Seems like an odd choice of places to send a teen who needs a bit more discipline. Or does it?
As Quentin says when Carl arrives: “Let me get this straight. Your Mum sent you here under the assumption that the bracing sea air would sort you out? A spectacular mistake!”
The group of disk jockeys that man the station are quite colorful. The most popular DJ is The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman), an American who is a bit of a git and takes himself entirely too seriously, a role that’s an anchor (pun intended) for the entire movie. In this role, I have to say that Hoffman demonstrates a range of emotions that few of the other characters in this film convey.
Problem is, The Count is only the #1 DJ because the real king of rock and roll, Gorgeous Gavin Cavenaugh (Rhys Ifans) had quit the station earlier that year to go to America. When he comes back, there are a series of funny one-upmanship scenes that culminates in a hilarious game of chicken that beautifully captures the loss of innocence of the entire era.
Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh) is a complete bureaucractic git
Kenneth Branagh has a stand out role as the completely uptight bureaucratic pinhead Sir Alistair Dormandy, who is assigned by the Prime Minister (Stephen Moore) to shut down Radio Rock and all the other pirate rock ‘n roll radio stations. He’s brilliant and indeed, the portrayal of the British government, particular when contrasted with the common people who are fans of the radio station and music, is superb. What a bunch of prigs!
One of the running storylines is the many attempts that “young Carl” has trying to lose his virginity. Every other Saturday women are allowed on board and the subsequent scenes for the few station personnel that don’t “have a bird” are quite amusing. Carl, though, doesn’t want to remain a virgin and is finally set up with the lovely young Felicity (Katherine Parkinson), just to have her stolen away by the sly Dave (Nick Frost). All is ultimately not lost, however, or, um, all is ultimately lost, depending on how you want to look at it.
This film has also had a bit of a rocky journey getting to American theaters. It was first released in April for the English cinema as The Boat that Rocked and had quite a bit more footage (original running time was 129 minutes, and the newly retitled release is pared down at 110 minutes). It didn’t do very well and most of the criticism was about the excessive running time. I can only conclude that the team in the edit booth did a good job, because the new film doesn’t drag on at all, isn’t choppy and is very entertaining.
There was so much great music intertwined throughout the film that even if the story doesn’t catch your fancy, you’ll undoubtedly have an f.a.b. time listening and reminiscing. Songs that stand out from the soundtrack include The Turtles singing “Elenor”, Martha & The Vandellas singing the infectious “Dancing In The Street” and “I Can See For Miles”, performed by The Who.
Pirate Radio is a fun, delightful, witty and affectionate look at the foibles and optimistic naivety of the 60s, a sweet story of lost innocence, both individually and as a generation.
The soundtrack to this film is really quite phenomenal and includes Cream’s “I Feel Free”, Procol Harem’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, The Turtles’ “She’d Rather be with Me”, The Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon” and “All Day and All Night”, The Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin”, John Fred & His Playboy Band’s “Judy in Disguise (With Glasses)”, Herb Albert’s “This Guy’s In Love With You”, The Troggs’ “With A Girl Life You”, and The Tremeloes’ “Silence is Golden”.