Pirate Radio

Movie Information

The Story: The story of renegade broadcasters operating from a ship off the coast of Great Britain in 1966. The Lowdown: An altogether splendid period piece about camaraderie and rock music with great performers, a killer sound track and a screenplay that's as warm as it is witty.
Score:

Genre: Comedy With Music
Director: Richard Curtis (Love Actually)
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Kenneth Branagh, Tom Sturridge, Nick Frost
Rated: R

I approached Richard Curtis’ Pirate Radio with serious trepidation. Here was a film that came out in the U.K. and Australia as an early-summer release called The Boat That Rocked. It drew mixed reviews and then languished over the summer, only to re-emerge stateside as Pirate Radio and cut by 20 minutes. Still, I’ve liked most of Curtis’ screenplays and truly loved his directorial debut, Love Actually (2003). Plus, the cast was better than good and the premise was solid, so I had cautious hope that it at least wasn’t going to be a disaster. The opening was brilliant, setting just the right tone for a movie that’s both a love letter to 1960s rock and a snapshot of a certain—peculiarly British—aspect of the era.

I settled in with heightened expectations, only to find that the film seemed to have trouble quite defining what it was doing. All that changed about 15 minutes in with a quiet scene where camaraderie is expressed with cookies and milk. At that moment, I fell in love with Pirate Radio and have yet to fall out of love with it. I don’t expect I shall. This is a movie I suspect I will only come to treasure more with the passage of time. I will, however, offer two caveats. First, do not approach the film with a too literal mind-set, since Curtis plays a little loose with what songs were out in 1966, opting instead for what best captures the spirit of the story. (You could hardly drop a needle on a record in 1966 and get Arthur Brown’s “Fire,” which didn’t come out till 1968.)  More to the point, if you dislike or have no interest in 1960s rock, stay home.

In case you don’t know, the film’s story is built around the real-life story of Radio Caroline, which broadcast from a ship that was anchored in international waters off the coast of Great Britain in defiance of British law that had effectively silenced rock music on the government-controlled radio. Since Radio Caroline was outside their jurisdiction, there really wasn’t any control over what the station broadcast and how they did it. This, of course, drew the ire of certain moralists in the government—represented in the film by Kenneth Branagh as the fictional Sir Alistair Dormandy—who schemed to find a way to shut the station down. Though a surprising number of events have a basis in fact—and many of the characters have real-life counterparts—the film never attempts to be historically accurate. Rather—as with the sound track—it’s true in spirit, as a celebration of the pirate broadcasters’ dedication to the music and their listeners.

Much as with Love Actually, Curtis has crafted an ensemble work with numerous crisscrossed story lines. In some ways, it’s a little more wieldy here since nearly all the action—at least in the U.S. version—takes place on the ship. The scenes on land are limited to Dormandy’s efforts to have his right-hand man, with the apt name of Twatt (though it rhymes with “rat”), shut the station down, and glimpses of the listeners who tune in. The confined space—with a lot of people coming and going—serves the film well, and while it sometimes requires Curtis to use very wide-angle lenses that distort anyone on the edge of the frame, this is a limitation that actually gives Pirate Radio something of the look of movies of the era, when filmmakers were more and more breaking free from studios and working on location.

Apart from the central story of the fight between the government and the station, the film is mostly a series of character vignettes and slices of their lives. There’s a charming subplot about a young man, Carl (Tom Sturridge, Being Julia), who may or may not be the son of the station’s owner, Quentin (Bill Nighy), but has in any case been packed off by his mother (Emma Thompson) to spend the summer onboard. Splendidly playful scenes—there’s a wonderful bit involving a wedding set to the Turtles’ “Elenore”—keep tumbling out of the film in easy procession, building to a fact-based conclusion that’s taken to a feel-good extreme (and about which some have complained).

The top-notch cast is a terrific help. I have rarely just liked Philip Seymour Hoffman—I usually admire him, but don’t actually like him—as much as I do in this film. Bill Nighy’s Quentin may not quite equal his burnt-out rock star from Love Actually, but it’s a near thing. Rhys Ifans is letter perfect as Hoffman’s rival for DJ supremacy. But it’s ultimately the cast’s ability to work as an ensemble—as a group banded together in fellowship over the music—that makes it all work. And work it does. I haven’t so thoroughly enjoyed myself this year since The Brothers Bloom, nor have I wanted to see a film again this much. Rated R for language and some sexual content, including brief nudity.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

50 thoughts on “Pirate Radio

  1. Jim Donato

    My wife is a big Bill Nighy fan and we’ve been waiting for this all summer. I certainly can’t call it a disappointment even though we were forewarned of the editing/re-titling, which gave us pause. I’m very familiar with this era of music and was looking forward to the movie; finding it a rich period to mine for a film. The titles were superb and energetic and set the right tone for the rest that followed. The cast was enmeshed perfectly together. Curtis has stated that he was aiming for an Altman/M*A*S*H feel, but he’s his own man and proffers a less coldly objective eye towards human nature.

    I especially liked the relationship between Sir Dormandy & Twatt. Watching them together, you could tell reams about their class backgrounds. Dormandy was a creature of privilege while Twatt obviously had to use his wits to attain what status he had. It was a relief to see Carl held an interest in photography without it telegraphing any plot points. Filigree like that or The Count’s custom-painted headphones added a lot. Has any actor reeked rock star arrogance better than Rhys Ifans here? We look forward to seeing the inevitable director’s cut on DVD and the next film from Mr. Curtis.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Has any actor reeked rock star arrogance better than Rhys Ifans here?

    Just to see him swimming on his back with his cigarette in his mouth in the ocean pretty much says it all. It’s so Keith Richards that it’s startling. At the same time, he’s oddly likable.

    We look forward to seeing the inevitable director’s cut on DVD and the next film from Mr. Curtis.

    Well, you can already get the original cut from Amazon UK, if you’re so inclined. A friend of mine — and fairly frequent poster on here — in Australia is sending me the disc from there (presumably the same as the UK one) and I’m very interested to see the differences. I’m especially curious to see if this might be a case where the shorter version is an improvement. (I wish I knew if Curtis is the one who cut the film for the US release.)

  3. Jim Donato

    One thing that could have been improved is the denouement, or lack thereof. What really happened with pirate radio is that staid Auntie Beeb ended up hiring many of the pirate DJs to man the boards on their newly pop-infused airwaves (Radio 1) shortly thereafter. Heck, Tony Blackburn is still going strong today. It would have been a hoot to see Sir Dormandy crossing paths in the halls of government with the now legit DJs (also with government paychecks) scruffing up the airwaves with their hooligan noise. Strange bedfellows indeed. In my mind, that would have been how the film ended. Let us know after viewing the PAL disc.

    Scuttlebutt has it the film originally had a 3 hour cut that was whittled down for the UK release. Of course the licensing costs would have brought the house down with that much music to accompany the action. The edit we received was not bad. It served the characters well enough but I would be interested in finding out was responsible for the final cut. Let us know if more is better after seeing the 135 minute cut.

  4. Has any actor reeked rock star arrogance better than Rhys Ifans here?

    Ifans was the first lead singer for the popular Welch band Super Furry Animals, so he knows a thing or two about rock and roll.

  5. Jim Donato

    Ifans was/is a musician? Well shut my mouth! My knowledge of Welsh techno begins (and ends) with Freur/Underworld MK I. I only knew the gent from his (superb) turn as Puff in Michel Gondry’s Human Nature. Apparently I’ve also seen him in “Dancing At Lughnasa” though I can’t remember that film. Examining his CV further reveals he starred as Peter Cook in a biopic “Not Only But Always!” I’d love to see that.

  6. Marcianne Miller

    Truly one of the best movies of the year– and certainly worth seeing more than once. Can’t wait to see the DVD version with an hour’s worth of scenes that were deleted from the theatrical release.

  7. Ken Hanke

    Examining his CV further reveals he starred as Peter Cook in a biopic “Not Only But Always!” I’d love to see that.

    Oh, thanks — a piece of information that sent me straight to spendinng money on Amazon.

  8. Ben

    Ken, Im so surprised. I tend to agree with you on most films, but this one I felt fell short of deserving a perfect score. It was entirely too long. The ending scene drug on forever. The wedding scene you mention seemed to have no purpose but to build up to the final joke that seemed totally unbelievable and fell totally flat. There were so many characters that the film didnt seem to have time for them all. And lastly, there were at two scenes where every one of them stands up one by one and gives some one liner about not abandoning the station. Im surprised that none of these things irritated you the way they did me. I fully expected a three and a half or four star rating:)

  9. Ken Hanke

    What can I say, Ben? We have two wildly different takes on this one. I’ve seen it three times and will see it again. I prety much completely love the film.

    Anyone who wants to see it, needs to go this weekend, because it’s already leaving at least one of the three theaters it’s in — Carmike — after Tuesday. The film should never have been booked into three theaters in a town this size.

  10. Julie

    I just saw this movie tonight and *loved* it. The audience clapped at the end. That doesn’t happen very often. It totally deserved it.

  11. Julie

    One thing I wondered… does anyone know why there are no Beatles’ songs in the film? It seems like a bizarre omission.

  12. This movie is a real delight…for those of us who were around for the original music, it was a real delight to see & hear.

    It’s not factual, just good story telling. And worth seeing more than once. The unrealistic “feel good” ending was good for the soul, if not very probable.

    Radio Caroline, from which the movie is inspired is still around today.

    http://www.radiocaroline.co.uk/#boat_that_rocked.html

  13. Jim Donato

    I would imagine that no Beatles songs were in the film because they cost a fortune to license and with this much wall to wall music, something had to give.

  14. Has any actor reeked rock star arrogance better than Rhys Ifans here?
    Oddly enough, Ifans performance in this film made me think he’d be perfect for Sherlock Holmes.

  15. Ken Hanke

    I would imagine that no Beatles songs were in the film because they cost a fortune to license

    That’s actually my guess, too. Licensing music is complex and expensive. It’s one thing to license the use of a song, another to license the use of the actual recording. And then you hit the differences in theatrical rights, broadcast rights and ancillary rights. I haven’t read the reason for no Beatles, though I recall that Ebert noted the lack of them in passsing.

  16. Ken Hanke

    Oddly enough, Ifans performance in this film made me think he’d be perfect for Sherlock Holmes

    Well, rock star arrogance doesn’t seem that far removed from Sherlock Holmes.

  17. bikeman

    Overall a pleasant movie, and the more I think about it, the more i like this movie. Sure, it had a few inaccuracies, but so what, let’s not take it so seriously, which is what they were saying throughout this entire movie. I must admit, there was one scene that made me laugh harder than I recall laughing in quite some time. If you like 60’s rock n roll, go see this movie. I will see it again.

  18. Dionysis

    A thoroughly enjoyable movie. One area that seemed a little incomplete was after Rhys Ifans had been announced as returning, Hoffman’s character gets a bit jeolous (not a surpris). After Ifans boards the boat with all of the pomp and ceremony, Hoffman’s character kind of just disappears for a while. I wonder if this will be rectified with the additional 20 minutes of footage cut?

    I would have liked for some of the songs to have played in their entirety, instead of 20 second snippets.

    Finally, I had a hard time accepting that the overweight DJ was such a chick magnet. I mean, even if they were sort of rock-star like in their appeal to young people, that this rotund fellow would have gorgeous young females anxious to jump in the sack with him was a big stretch.

  19. Ken Hanke

    After Ifans boards the boat with all of the pomp and ceremony, Hoffman’s character kind of just disappears for a while.

    I can’t say I noticed that.

    I would have liked for some of the songs to have played in their entirety, instead of 20 second snippets

    That’s very rarely practical when you’re considering the pace and length of a movie. Anyway, there’s always the soundtrack album.

    I mean, even if they were sort of rock-star like in their appeal to young people, that this rotund fellow would have gorgeous young females anxious to jump in the sack with him was a big stretch

    You may be underestimating the lure of fame there.

    On another front, since the film rose 47% in attendance this past weekend, the Carmike Powers That Be opted not to drop it after all and are dropping The Fourth Kind instead. I already knew it was being held over at the Carolina.

  20. Dionysis

    “You may be underestimating the lure of fame there.”

    Apparently so.

  21. Being heros as these guys were there was a certain amount of “power” perceived by the younger women.

    Back in the early 70’s Henry Kissinger was famous for having a token hottie on his arm constantly…when ask why a homely man like him had such luck with hot women Henry said.

    “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.”

  22. john r

    What a ride. I am dating myself, but this brought back so many memeories of the time when the DJs were as important as the music. I enjoyed the interplay, and behind the scenes view of these unembodied “voices”. Seeing the opposition to the music embodied in the Branagh character was well done. A well done nostalgic piece that maintains the myth it represents while still showing the foibles of the characters is a difficult balance to acheive, but this movie hit the bulls-eye. I am looking forward to seeing it again.

  23. Ken Hanke

    A well done nostalgic piece that maintains the myth it represents while still showing the foibles of the characters is a difficult balance to acheive, but this movie hit the bulls-eye.

    I think that’s a very fair assessment of the film. It’s all too easy to sneer at nostalgia, but there’s really nothing wrong with nostalgia that recognizes the shortcomings and foolishness that were also part of the era.

    I am looking forward to seeing it again.

    It is definitely starting to look like it might be the kind of film that draws repeat business just by what I have seen in terms of attendance.

  24. Ken Hanke

    Interesting point: Pirate Radio took in more money at one theater on Thanksgiving than it had taken in on its opening night at that same venue. That’s unusual and a testament to word of mouth.

  25. Come_on

    So much in this movie felt unearned. How are we expected to believe that people behave this way? After Bill Nighy decides to let the main character sleep with his niece for his birthday (?), we’re supposed to feel for him when she decides to disappear into Nick Frost’s room after waiting in the hall for two minutes. I guess she comes back for him eventually because of the meaningful bond they’d formed over the conversation we never saw them have. This is one example. What was he doing there anyway? He wasn’t a DJ. He didn’t cook anything. It doesn’t matter. Now there’s going to be a climbing contest. But then everyone’s friends again, so I give up.

  26. Ken Hanke

    After Bill Nighy decides to let the main character sleep with his niece for his birthday (?), we’re supposed to feel for him when she decides to disappear into Nick Frost’s room after waiting in the hall for two minutes. I guess she comes back for him eventually because of the meaningful bond they’d formed over the conversation we never saw them have

    Actually, I did feel bad for him — and I very much liked the way the others tried to cheer him up. And it struck me that she came back at least in part out of guilt for having thrown him over for the more famous DJ.

    What was he doing there? That’s clearly explained in the film — his mother has asked Nighy to have him spend the summer onboard after he got kicked out of school. (Now, if you ask what exactly Thick Kevin is doing there, I wouldn’t have an answer, but I’m not sure I care very much.)

    Offhand, I’d say we got very different things out of the film.

  27. Come_on

    Well if you felt bad for him, then you must have gotten more out of the movie than I did, because it usually makes me feel cheated and manipulated when filmmakers expect me to react to two minutes of two-dimensional character development just because it’s set to a Leonard Cohen song.
    I think we can all agree that music from the 60s is very good. Now that that’s out of the way, I do take issue with a movie co-opting the emotional weight that many people have attached to said music to add artificial depth to their movie. It’s not even that I don’t think Curtis actually believed he was making a loveletter to rock music. I do have to call bullshit on this “capturing the spirit of an era” notion as well. While the movie had its fun moments and a feel-goodery ending, strip away the soundtrack and you’re left with a jumbled mess.

  28. Ken Hanke

    Well if you felt bad for him, then you must have gotten more out of the movie than I did, because it usually makes me feel cheated and manipulated when filmmakers expect me to react to two minutes of two-dimensional character development just because it’s set to a Leonard Cohen song.

    First of all, it should be abundantly obvious that I got more out of the movie than you did, so that’s a given. But more to the point, the music here (I didn’t even recognize the song) had very little to do with it. It was the interplay of the characters.

    It’s not even that I don’t think Curtis actually believed he was making a loveletter to rock music.

    So you do or you don’t believe that was his intent?

    I do have to call bullshit on this “capturing the spirit of an era” notion as well.

    Well, it captures what the era felt like to me as I remember it from my youth. That’s all I can go by. And it’s enough from my perspective.

    strip away the soundtrack and you’re left with a jumbled mess

    Yes, but since the soundtrack is a part of the film and the film is often very clearly built around that soundtrack, that’s a weak argument. It’s based on a movie that doesn’t exist and wouldn’t have been made.

    In the end, it comes down to I liked — no I loved the movie. You didn’t. We can go back and forth, but I’ll be mightily surprised if either of us changes his mind.

  29. Come_on

    I guess what it comes down to for me is that you let me down, Cranky Hanke. You do realize that five stars is the highest possible rating you can give a movie, right?
    Interplay between the characters: This interplay consisted of what’s-his-name seeing an attractive girl, “falling in love,” rushing to find a condom, explaining why he went to find a condom when he first saw her, winning her over in this way, and losing her to Nick Frost. This is the depth of characterization we’re offered.
    Soundtrack, weak argument: If the movie were truly built around the soundtrack/era/radio, then we wouldn’t have had the above-mentioned scene, or the equally baffling marriage vignette. The last act, which involved the actual pirate radio conflict, kept me interested, but I disagree that tossed-off sketches like these had any relevance. I still think that the machine gun-delivery of one song after another felt like a distraction from the lack of content.
    Also, wasn’t it great how the lesbian looked up at that other lesbian and fell in love, which we know because sex?

  30. To me, the atmosphere of 24/7 party down on the boat was a necessary element to project to Radio Caroline’s audience. If that “atmosphere” was unbelievable to some then so be it. It’s inevitable that the party atmosphere would lead to moments of un-believe-ability.

    I remember the time as being heavy with dread [the Berlin Wall had been erected and the Cold War was raging] so the contrast of the party atmosphere was a welcomed escape to the fan base. The owner of the Boat That Rocked was well aware of the need for escaping and did his level best to encourage his DJ’s to live, breath and broadcast, that philosophy.

    The movie is based on a real story. While it did take some poetic license to emphasize the David vs. Goliath scenario…then so what, that’s what movies are for. I loved the movie and my mind’s not changing, either.

  31. Ken Hanke

    I guess what it comes down to for me is that you let me down, Cranky Hanke

    Oh, come on, Come on, this is the same complaint you used when I thought that Observe and Report was crap (and that wasn’t even my review).

    You do realize that five stars is the highest possible rating you can give a movie, right?

    Really? I’m shocked to learn this.

    Look, you’re spinning your wheels here. I already said that neither of us is likely to change his mind on the film. You didn’t like it. I did. (I even specifically like things you specifically don’t like.) That’s pretty much it. It’ll almost certainly be on my 10 Best of 2009 list. It won’t be on yours. I’m okay with that, aren’t you?

    I do have one question with your assertion that the film doesn’t capture the spirit of the era — were you around during said era? Just curious.

  32. Come_on

    For the record, I didn’t like Observe and Report either. I just thought it too interesting to get bullied by a “tarted up” movie critic.
    I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind, and as I’ve said before I think it it’s great that this forum stays so active, and with so much input from the critics. I just had no one else to complain to that’s seen the movie. I saw it with my mother and she loved it. Go figure.

  33. Ken Hanke

    For the record, I didn’t like Observe and Report either. I just thought it too interesting to get bullied by a “tarted up” movie critic

    Not that I understand how Justin qualifies as “tarted up” (though it certainly conjures an image), but really who else is going to bully it? All the same, it’s not even the type of movie critics have much clout with. There are very clear limitations on that score. Some movies I know I can neither help, nor hinder. (The latter doesn’t particularly bother me, the former does.) Observe and Report tanked on its own.

    I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind, and as I’ve said before I think it it’s great that this forum stays so active, and with so much input from the critics

    Well, we have no lives. Or at least I don’t. (Justin wins money by playing trivia once a week, making him a social butterfly by comparison.)

    I just had no one else to complain to that’s seen the movie.

    If you want to complain about something, complain about that Taylor Swift album cover in the montage about rock having had a “pretty good 40 years” at the end. Makes me cringe every time. There are other debatable choices on there, but that one seems especially odd.

    I saw it with my mother and she loved it

    Well, they do say that mother knows best. Then again, my mother loved Mamma Mia!. We don’t discuss this.

  34. A friend of mine—and fairly frequent poster on here—in Australia is sending me the disc from there (presumably the same as the UK one) and I’m very interested to see the differences.
    DVD’s in the post, Mr H.

  35. Ken Hanke

    DVD’s in the post, Mr H.

    I await same with keen anticipation.

  36. Ken Hanke

    Trivia question: Has anyone identified the album that Bob tries to save from the ship — the one Nick Frost takes away from him (“Oh, that is not a good record”)?

  37. Jim Donato

    In the theatre I thought that the album was “Haphash & The Coloured Coat” from the brief flash of the artwork. I’ve subsequently discovered that it is in fact “The 5000 Spirits or Layers of the Onion” by The Incredible String Band. I’ve just read the autobio of their producer, Joe Boyd and he seriously laments introducing the band to a waiter he knew who was a Scientologist. Soon after the whole band converted and went “clear” he said the music died for him.

  38. Ken Hanke

    No wonder I didn’t recognize it! I only vaguely remember the band at all.

  39. Me

    Whoa wait. I just realized this is actually ranked higher than A Serious Man geez.

  40. Ken Hanke

    Whoa wait. I just realized this is actually ranked higher than A Serious Man geez.

    Yes, it is.

  41. Both contain great use of 60s pop music. I wonder who comes out as the greatest screen villain of ’09 though – Sir Alistair Dormandy or Sy Abelman?

  42. Jason Anderson

    I think this is the best movie by Richard Curtis since Four Weddings and a Funeral, and I’ve loved them all. I saw the movie before they cut so many scenes out and after and I have to say it was a better movie before they deleted so many scenes. I think so many people feel the movie was disjointed because it was ruined after it was changed so much.

  43. I think this is the best movie by Richard Curtis since Four Weddings and a Funeral, and I’ve loved them all.

    I saw the movie before they cut so many scenes out and after and I have to say it was a better movie before they deleted so many scenes. I think so many people feel the movie was disjointed because it was ruined after it was changed so much.

  44. Ken Hanke

    I think it’s a great picture either way, but a better one its original form. I was hoping the US DVD would restore it to its original cut, but it doesn’t look like it.

  45. Jim Donato

    We saw the deleted scenes on the DVD with Curtis’ intros yesterday. When a movie offers this much pleasure, it shouldn’t have been moderated. I couldn’t help but notice that lead-ins to the scenes were judiciously included and in an unusual move, SMPTE time code is missing from the fully realized deleted scenes. Enterprising film editors are hereby invited to reassemble the full edit of the film! We have the technology. Of the cut scenes, Gavin’s cantina sequence was very much a great, lost opportunity, as were the shore leave scenes. The dead silence that accompanied Rhys Darby’s appearance topside for the fans (along with his curt response) got the biggest laugh from me. To nitpick, I don’t think The Count would have used the British colloquialism “press ups” instead of the sturdy Yank equivalent of “push ups” instead.

  46. Enterprising film editors are hereby invited to reassemble the full edit of the film!
    Or simply purchase THE BOAT THAT ROCKED from Amazon UK.

  47. Ken Hanke

    The only downside to that is the slight speeding up of the film in the PAL to NTSC conversion. But it’s still a lot easier than assembling it.

  48. I would imagine that no Beatles songs were in the film because they cost a fortune to license

    Recently, MAD MEN used about twenty seconds of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. It cost them $250,000. I can’t imagine what it would have set Curtis back to use one of the more prominent songs like ‘A Hard Days Night’ or ‘Revolution’.

  49. Ken Hanke

    I’d charge more for TV. And scrolling down to here, I saw posts by “Come On,” who Justin and I finally drove off with our Best of the Decade list. I didn’t regret that.

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