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.