Pirate Radio

Pirate Radio

The one drawback to living aboad ship is all the cockroaches.

(2009) Rock ‘n’ Roll Comedy (Focus) Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Sturridge, Jack Davenport, Emma Thompson, January Jones, Gemma Arterton, Tom Brooke. Directed by Richard Curtis

As a former rock critic, I find myself somewhat amused, puzzled and alarmed all at once when I regard the state of rock and roll. Originally, the music was supposed to be rebellious; it was a symbol of rising up against the system and crafting something new, different and exciting. Now, it is the system. I guess that’s true of most things that start off that way.

To many, the apex of rock and roll occurred in the 60s, and the epicenter of that apex was in England. Some of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time were all practicing their art with relish and relevance – the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Who and so on and so forth. Yet if you wanted to hear those great British bands in Great Britain, you couldn’t. The BBC, the government-controlled broadcasting company, refused to play it on moral grounds, allowing rock and roll a begrudged hour or two per week and even then the songs that were played were far more middle of the road pop than rock.

When a need arises, trust some enterprising soul to figure out a way to fill that need and so pirate radio was born. A bunch of DJs and mariners rented a merchant vessel, outfitted it with a huge bloody antenna, and anchored in international waters, beaming the sounds of the Troggs, Leonard Cohen and Jimi Hendrix to a grateful nation. The most famous pirate station was Radio Caroline (which still broadcasts on the internet to this day, by the way).

While this crew isn’t Radio Caroline (the people and events that inspired the movie were scattered on the many dozens of pirate radio ships that encircled the British Isles), they are zany in their own right. Aboard Radio Rock is the debonair and irreverent Captain Quentin (Nighy), The Count (Hoffman), an American DJ who’s enormously popular and is the heart and soul of Radio Rock; Thick Kevin (Brooke), not the brightest bulb in the chandelier; Dr. Dave (Frost), a somewhat blindly trusting DJ who ought to know better; Gavin Cavanagh (Ifans), who is the most popular DJ in pirate radio and begins a fierce rivalry with the Count when he’s brought aboard Radio Rock, and young Carl (Sturridge) who is actually the protagonist, a virgin whose free-spirited mum (Thompson) sent him aboard the pirate radio vessel to sort himself out with his godfather, Captain Quentin. Bad idea, mum.

Curtis, who also directed Love Actually which is possibly the best romantic comedy of the past decade, knows how to work with an ensemble (Thompson and Nighy also worked for Curtis in that cast) and you never feel that any character is given short shrift; well, not really anyway. Carl is a bit too bland a character whose only trait seems to be his virginity, which is more a lack of opportunity than a characteristic. He is the audience surrogate to somewhat of a degree whose only function is to sit back and shake his head at the antics of the DJs. Those guys!

And the antics are highly entertaining, particularly as they import groupies to sail out aboard the ship to relieve these intrepid men of their sexual frustrations (hey, they’re both sailors and disc jockeys – can any human being get more inherently horny?) and not coincidently, bare their breasts on-camera. Hey, sex sells damn it.

Hoffman, Nighy, Ifans and Frost are always entertaining, and seeing them work together is a nice treat. Branagh plays Dormandy, ostensibly the villain of the piece, the tight-arsed minister in charge of ridding Britain of pirate radio forever. He is aided by the appropriately named Twatt (Davenport), the assistant in charge of finding dirty tricks and loopholes. He would later cross the Atlantic and become a personal advisor to President Nixon (just kidding). Both Branagh and Davenport are solid.

What will stay with you from this movie is the absolutely astonishing soundtrack which contains some of the best music from the late ‘60s. Some critics have moaned and groaned about some of the songs being from after 1966, the year this is supposed to take place. As Jay Leno might say, SHUT UP! Nobody cares about your knowledge of music history. The music fits the story and the songs are awesome. Just sit back and listen and let the grown-ups talk.

This isn’t as good a film as Love Actually but it’s pretty dang good all the same. For those of my generation, the music is a trip straight down Memory Lane (with a brief stop at Penny Lane, although the Beatles didn’t grant the rights and releases to their music so they don’t appear on the soundtrack). Curtis does a good job of evoking the era and keeps things light and a bit manic, all leaving a good taste in the mouth. It may only be rock and roll but I like it – and so did millions of others, including you I’d bet. While this movie didn’t fare very well box office-wise, it deserves a better fate, if just for Curtis’ taste in music alone.

WHY RENT THIS: A phenomenal soundtrack and a general sense of fun and bonhomie pervade the film. The actors look like they’re having the time of their lives.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot meanders down into Unnecessaryland and the whole virginity subplot seemed less enticing than the goings on with the DJs.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is blue, but not as blue as the bare behinds which were hanging out in the cold North Sea air.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the movie is a work of fiction, many of the events depicted happened on a variety of pirate radio ships, particularly the most infamous Radio Caroline, whose red and white color scheme was borrowed by the Radio Rock vessel. A DJ did get married on board a pirate radio ship, and Radio Caroline’s first ship did sink (although the station eventually got a second ship which remained in use until 1991; it sits as something of a museum and many of the artifacts from the vessel were used in this film).

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray edition contains a short but informative featurette on the history of pirate radio in the UK. Unfortunately, the DVD consumer gets shafted again.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36.4M on a $50M production budget; any way you slice it, the movie flopped at the box office.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: The Brothers Bloom

2 thoughts on “Pirate Radio

  1. Apart from Radio Luxembourg, which broadcast only in the evenings from the Grand Duchy, there was nowhere to hear the latest music.

    It’s a myth, however, that the BBC played no pop music. The Musicians’ Union restricted the number of hours of recorded music permitted to be aired, arguing that spinning records took work from its members. Much of the permitted BBC ‘needle time’ was devoted to the weekly ‘Pick of the Pops’ chart run-down. Everyone tuned in to it.

    On BBC weekend programmes Saturday Club (Sat morning) and Easybeat (Sunday morning), bands were obliged to play live and a number of session singers would be wheeled in to perform the hits of the day. There was usually only a handful of vinyl in the programmes, often new releases.

    The following artist list for an edition broadcast 16th March 1963, shows that Saturday Club had a somewhat eclectic content.

    The Beatles, Susan Maughan, The Karl Denver Trio, The Brook Brothers, The Jeff Rowena Six, Bob Wallis and his Storyville Jazzmen, Tommy Sanderson & The Sandmen.

    The Karl Denver Trio played folky stuff, while Bob Wallis and his Storyville Jazzmen played traditional jazz. There was a fair amount of ‘trad jazz’ content in the BBC’s pop programming, as the music was quite popular in the early Sixties. Imagine being 13 (as I was then) and having to sit through that stuff till the Beatles came on!

    Saturday Club was two hours long and much of its content was not what teenagers wanted, so when the pirates came along in 1964 and we had all-day music, it was almost exactly what we had been longing for. I say ‘almost’ because the first stations like Caroline, were very much middle-of-the-road. We had all-day vinyl, but by no means all-day pop.

    It wasn’t till the end of 1964, when Radio London sailed in from Miami, bringing the US Top Forty format and jingles, that we finally got pop music radio. Big L very quickly cornered the listener market and the Caroline sound had to be revamped very quickly to compete. By 1966 most of the offshore stations were Top Forty-based, but there were a couple of ‘easy listening’ stations.

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