Film Review #214: Pirate Radio
Director: Richard Curtis
Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Rhys Ifans, Emma Thompson
Maybe the surprise engagement softened us up, but I prefer to see it as further evidence of the enduring power of rock’n’roll. Local music fans will remember when WAER’s deejay Eric Cohen used the main stage at Jazz Fest to go down on one knee. Last Friday night another enterprising young man engineered the same thing during the closing credits at the early screening of Pirate Radio in Albany’s Spectrum Theatre. As snapshots of the couple flashed onscreen and the live Black gospel choir planted in the audience burst into the Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” he popped the question. Coming up the aisle as the crowd for the next showing filtered in, their giant images still looming on the screen behind them, they looked pretty happy, and way too young to have been alive in 1966, when Pirate Radio takes place.
Pirate Radio opened nationwide last Friday with little advance notice. Except for the face of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in the newspaper ads and a Friday afternoon feature on NPR about the history of 1960s-era offshore pirate radio stations that I caught on the drive to Albany, it wasn’t on my radar at all. My sister and I were thinking of Lorna’s Silence, the new one by the Belgian filmmaker Dardenne brothers, or maybe Paris, which we went back to see Saturday night. Pirate Radio was pretty much a Plan B. But – still softened up with lingering good cheer from that engagement or not – we cheered and clapped right along with everybody else when the end credits rolled.
About 20 minutes longer and titled The Boat that Rocked before its U.S. makeover, Pirate Radio hadn’t done all that well overseas. Many reviews here have been luke-warm too – grumpily calling it a “mess” and a “hodgepodge,” a poor imitation of Richard Lester’s madcap Beatles films (A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, 1964 and ‘65) and – ironically, considering the movie’s own personification of upper crust British culture police, Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), who vows to crush the outlaw radio stations and the “sewer” they represent – nowhere near the in-depth treatment the subject or the era deserve. Excuse me, but this movie is a musical. How much “character development” does even The Sound of Music really have, folks? Pirate Radio was written and directed by Richard Curtis, from whom we’ve had Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love Actually – affectionate entertainments, really, as this film is.
The year is 1966, when the UK’s state-owned BBC aired about two hours of rock music a week, compared to the United States’ 571 music-and-news format privately-owned commercial radio stations that provided Top 40 rock music 24 hours a day. State-owned radio monopolies actually pervaded most European broadcasting since the 1920s and, in England’s case, agreements with the musicians’ unions prevented more than minimal on-air “needle-time” as a way of tightly controlling competition with live performers. As the opening montage shows, about half of Britain’s population – 20 million people – listened to rock on U.S.-style pirate stations. That is, stations financed by advertizing (often U.S.-based) that aired commercials on shows run by popular deejays with nicknames, jingles, station ID’s and their own steadfast, infatuated fans. The first offshore pirate stations broadcast from ships in the 1950s off Denmark, Holland and Sweden. A London-based agent, Rohan O’Rahilly, launched Radio Caroline in March 1964, with another eight or nine stations following. Parliament did pass the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in August 1967, as the film depicts.
Pirate Radio only loosely adheres to this history, it’s true, leaving out many nuances of that day’s culture wars – save joyous resistance to authority – or our own day’s political correctness, and cobbling together a tale of the decrepit fictional ex-tanker Radio Rock anchored in the North Sea, with an assortment of odd birds and motley crew – including Hoffman as the American, Rhys Ifans as the Brit megastar deejay Gavin Cavanaugh, Bill Nighy as the ship’s captain Quentin, and the lone woman Felicity (Katherine Parker), allowed on board to cook only because she’s a lesbian. Into this comes Quentin’s godson Carl (Tom Sturridge), sent for some manning-up by his mother Charlotte (Emma Thompson), whom Quentin calls a “sexual legend.” Plot twists abound, including visits from giddy fans, games of chicken, finding Carl's long-lost father and a sudden swerve into Titanic-as-rock-opera midway through, with a box of beloved albums standing in for that sapphire necklace. And the soundtrack – close to 40 songs – well, it is glorious. No matter what age you are, you’re likely to know them all.
This review appeared in the 11/19/09 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly. Find Simon Frith’s fascinating and more complete history of the British pirate stations at the film’s official website. “Make it Snappy” is a regular film column reviewing DVDs, special screenings and films of enduring worth. Nancy is a member of the national Women Film Critics Circle.