Review: Tune In to Pirate Radio for a Good Time

In ancient historical times, i.e., 1966, the officially licensed radio stations in England didn't play rock 'n' roll music. That would have been no great loss in, say, the mid '70s, but 1966? That was the high point of British rock music: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Cream, The Who, et cetera, et cetera. To deprive young Brits of this part of their culture was downright uncivilized.

To fill the need, there arose certain "pirate" radio stations, so called because they operated without licenses, not because they sailed the seven seas, though some of them were, coincidentally, housed on ships anchored in the sea off the coast of England. The film Pirate Radio draws from some of the experiences of those real stations to tell a highly amusing fictionalized version of the battle between rock 'n' roll and Her Majesty's government.

Pirate Radio (released in the U.K. under the title The Boat That Rocked) is a tad oversimplified and not very deep -- but then, you could say the same thing about a lot of really good rock tunes. The important thing is that it's also a lot of fun. It's got a good beat and you can dance to it, as they say.

These fictional pirates operate a floating radio station called Radio Rock, and, since their workplace is on a ship, they have to live at their jobs. You may well imagine what a ship populated by DJs and radio engineers is like; picture a college radio station's staff sharing a frat house. The station's grown-up owner, Quentin (Bill Nighy), straddles the line between businessman respectability and rock 'n' roll freedom, pragmatically urging the DJs not to swear on the air since the government hates them enough already. The DJs don't straddle the line, though. They are unfamiliar with this "line" you speak of. Their job is to make the audience feel like they're doing something naughty just by tuning in.

Our introduction to this motley crew comes by way of 18-year-old Carl (Tom Sturridge), a misbehaving lad whose mother has sent him to live with his godfather, Quentin, for a while, in the hopes that it will straighten him out. Obviously she sent him to the wrong place. Radio Rock may be a ship, but it ain't exactly the Royal Navy. The guys onboard take him in as one of their own and become his new family. (Carl's boozy, footloose mother, played by Emma Thompson, appears for only two scenes -- long enough to establish why Carl is in need of a real family, even an unorthodox one.)

Back on land, we meet Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), a government official who is the very picture of conservative, horn-rimmed British stuffiness. He and his harrumphing colleagues, who remind me of the bank officers in Mary Poppins, despise rock music and pirate radio and are annoyed by the fact that technically no laws are being broken. That's easily remedied, though. "That's the whole point of being the government," Alistair says. "If you don't like something, you simply pass a law to make it illegal." He teams up with an underling named Twatt (Jack Davenport) -- yes, this movie is sophomoric enough to name a character Twatt -- to find some kind of plausible justification for outlawing Radio Rock.

That part of the story stays in the background for most of the film, leaving the emphasis on the station's in-house antics. Some of these shenanigans are a little wheezy and implausible and rely too much on the men attempting to have sex with whatever women happen to be visiting the ship. You can understand why that would be a major concern for them -- the only woman onboard full-time is a lesbian -- but surely you can do better than frat-house hijinks like two guys conspiring to trade places in a darkened room so the inexperienced one can sleep with a woman without her realizing there's been a switch.

The film is at its best when it's simply letting the radio guys be themselves, cracking jokes in the commons room and broadcasting every part of their lives over the airwaves. Radio Rock is a sort of reality show; one of the DJs even gets married on the air. An off-kilter fellow known as The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is the only American staffer and the station's most popular personality until the return of Gavin Cavanaugh (Rhys Ifans), a legend in the underground radio world. Angus (Rhys Darby, Murray from Flight of the Conchords) is the dork that the others make fun of. Dave (Nick Frost) is the tubby, good-natured horndog. Mark (Tom Wisdom) has a late-night show in which he plays records and barely says a word, yet somehow has all the young women of England swooning over him. Bob (Ralph Brown) is older, wild-haired, and truly obsessed with the music -- the others just seem to enjoy playin' records -- and takes his early-morning time slot very, very seriously. Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke) is known for being thick-headed. Others pop up now and then as needed; like The Office, you see a lot of familiar faces in the periphery, even when they're not required for the scene.

What writer/director Richard Curtis (Love Actually) does very well is make us feel like part of the gang, and quickly, too. Young Carl has barely set his bags down before he's laughing and joking with the crew, and we're right there with him. Not every vignette with every character is a winner, and the eventual showdown between Radio Rock and the British government strains credulity. But most of the story is funny and cheerful enough to outweigh those shortcomings, and it's bolstered by an utterly fantastic '60s rock soundtrack that can't fail to put you in the right frame of mind for the film's raucous spirit-of-radio revelry.

Grade: B

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Eric D. Snider (website) would listen to Radio Rock all day and all of the night.