Pirate Radio is a comic ode to mid-’60s rock ‘n’ roll and the British pirate radio stations that broadcast the music from ships anchored just outside the territorial waters of the country. Loosely based on the history of Radio Caroline, Pirate Radio (entitled The Boat That Rocked in its British release) comes out on DVD this week.
Written and directed by Richard Curtis (screenwriter of the funny and charming Four Weddings and a Funeral, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Notting Hill, as well as writer-director of the funny but occasionally icky Love Actually), Pirate Radio places its subject in its proper historical context right from the start. It’s set in 1966, or, as the opening titles explain, “The Greatest Era For British Rock & Roll — The Beatles, The Stones, The Who.”
But in the tightly regulated world of British radio, rock music was only broadcast a few hours each week on the BBC. So some creative entrepreneurs skirted the law by establishing unlicensed offshore radio stations that played rock 24 hours a day to a massive audience of 25 million listeners — or half the British population. In Pirate Radio, that floating boat of raucous rebellion is known as Radio Rock.
Curtis establishes this all quite brilliantly in his opening sequence. As the Radio Rock DJ known as The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) spins the dynamic sounds of the Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night”, folks all over Britain listen, dance and sing along — students in their dorms, kids with transistor radios hidden under their pillows, people in their apartments or at work, representing all ages, classes and races.
For his cast, Curtis brought together a wonderful group of scenery chewers, from the wealthy, dandy and debauched owner of the pirate radio station played by Bill Nighy to the assortment of wild and crazy DJs portrayed by Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Rhys Darby (Murray on Flight of the Conchords), Chris O’Dowd and others. Tom Sturridge plays the naive, 18-year-old godson of Nighy’s character for whom an apprenticeship on Radio Rock provides a coming-of-age education.
The dearth of meaningful roles for women in Pirate Radio could be interpreted as a subtle dig by Curtis at the era’s sexism, but I doubt it. In any event, most of the women in the film are sex-crazed fans of Radio Rock DJs, though Emma Thompson, January Jones (Mad Men) and Talulah Riley also appear in small roles.
Scenes of the DJs spinning records in their own, inimitable styles and taking part in assorted hijinx on the boat are interspersed with scenes of the movie’s villains trying to force them off the airwaves. The bad guys are a crusty, mean-spirited government minister (played by Kenneth Branagh) who makes it his mission to stop these outlaw broadcasters, and his henchman (Jack Davenport), whose name becomes the butt of many jokes but cannot be repeated in a column appearing in family newspapers and Web sites.
(Curtis doesn’t inform viewers that these uptight, conservative-appearing men were actually members of the Labor Party government, and Branagh’s character is based on left-wing Laborite Anthony Benn. Since the Conservative Party at the time was no less stodgy, it seems that being stuffy and out-of-touch with the nation’s youth was not a matter of political ideology.)
The main problem with Pirate Radio is its structure, as scenes follow one another in a manner that almost seems random in their disjointedness. And how all these DJs got together on the same pirate radio ship is not made clear.
Perhaps an explanation for this can be found in Curtis’ introduction to nearly an hour’s worth of deleted scenes. “The movie that we made came out massively longer than was intended,” he says, and the sections that he had to remove “contain some of my favorite scenes in the movie.”
No movie in recent memory has benefitted more from its release on DVD — with its accompanying deleted scenes — than Pirate Radio. In one of these left-out scenes, Hoffman delivers a soliloquy on the magic of the Beatles while leading his fellow DJs on an onshore homage to the Abbey Road recording studios where the Fab Four worked.
In another, told in a flashback, Ifan’s Gavin Canavagh rediscovers his love of rock ‘n’ roll in a Latin American cantina when a local man plays the Stones’ “Get Off of My Cloud” on a jukebox. Another scene, apparently based on real events, follows the DJs as they conduct a night-time raid on a new, rival pirate radio station. Then there’s a scene in which fans of the radio station win a trip aboard the pirate boat and treat the DJs — well, most of them — as if they were rock stars themselves.
At the heart of Pirate Radio is the great music of the mid-’60s, and Curtis’ Radio Rock DJs spin a terrific mix of songs by both heavyweight stars like the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Supremes, the Beach Boys and the Yardbirds and lesser-known groups and artists like the Easybeats and Lorraine Ellison. Notably absent are the Beatles — presumably because of licensing problems — as well as Bob Dylan, the Animals and the Byrds.
And strangely, at least to this viewer/listener, Curtis chose to use some music that wasn’t even released until the ’70s — such as the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” or Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” — when there was no shortage of memorable recordings available from 1966.
Despite the absence of some of the era’s most important and most popular music, as well as the choppiness caused by Curtis having to delete so many good scenes, Pirate Radio remains a lot of fun. Curtis captures the spirit of the times — rebellious, adventurous and hopeful.
Most importantly, what Pirate Radio gets right is the centrality of rock n’ roll to young people’s lives in 1966, a time when the music, the bands and even the DJs all mattered.