- Pirate Radio
Directed and written by Richard Curtis
The Count – Philip Seymour Hoffman
Quentin – Bill Nighy
Gavin – Rhys Ifans
Dave – Nick Frost
Minister Dormandy – Kenneth Branagh
A Brilliant Comedic Cast Keeps This Period Piece Afloat
Richard Curtis, the director of 2003’s romcom Love Actually, has made another film about the beauty of falling in love—but instead of stodgy Brits having awkward conversations in limos, Pirate Radio (British title The Boat That Rocked, a much catchier moniker) features a pure, sincere adoration of rock and roll music. Set in 1966, Pirate Radio follows the ragtag crew of Radio Rock, a station on a rig anchored in the North Sea off the coast of England. The film starts with a bit of history: in “the greatest era for rock and roll,” the British government refused to play pop or rock on its sanctioned stations, causing fans to tune into offshore stations. Twenty-five million fans, to be exact. The government, therefore, was reduced to making up new laws to illegalize pirate radio stations.
The movie doesn’t truly have a singular protagonist, which is one of its only faults. Young Carl (Tom Sturridge) finds himself expelled from school for smoking, and his mother sends him to spend time with his godfather (Bill Nighy) aboard Radio Rock. The crew takes him under their collective wing, but though he may be the initial focus, the viewpoint gradually shifts about until it’s clear each and every crew member is a protagonist of sorts. Luckily, the ensemble cast (many of whom have worked together before, as movie and TV fans will surely notice) has fantastic chemistry and rapport, and Curtis’s screenplay allows the actors to perform to their fullest.
Veteran Brit actor (and scenery chewer extraordinaire) Kenneth Branagh plays the delightfully dastardly Sir Alistair Dormandy, whose singular life’s goal is to shut down the pirate stations causing unrest via airwaves in England. Branagh rolls his “r”s and shrieks like a madman; the effect is perfect in this role. It’s nearly impossible to be understated or subtle while spewing lines like “If you don’t like something, you simply make it illegal,” and Branagh works his magic here. Jack Davenport, most recognizable to Americans as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise’s Captain Norrington, plays Dormandy’s assistant Twatt (the irony of the name is not lost). The duo creates an excellent foil for the amiable crew of Radio Rock, which includes some of Britain’s finest comedic actors, as well as perennial weirdo Philip Seymour Hoffman.
Rhys Ifans plays legendary DJ Gorgeous Gavin, slinking about in a purple velvet suit, a feathered hat, and treating the microphone like a lover. Nick Frost, Simon Pegg’s affable sidekick in Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, gets a leading role as chunky ladies’ man Dave. Rhys Darby, a New Zealand native whose role as band manager Murray on the hit HBO series “Flight of the Conchords” has placed him securely in the sights of a cult audience, reprises his role as lovable geek. Nighy’s trademark pauses and tics add luster to the impeccable captain Quentin. Seymour Hoffman lends his slightly disheveled and wacky persona to the role of The Count, the only American DJ, whose passion extends to risking his life in the honor of rock and roll. His role is virtually an extension of Lester Bangs, the legendary music journalist he played in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. All in all, the cast of fantastic comedians make the film.
Pirate Radio is a true period piece; costumes include plaid suits paired with paisley scarves, huge lapels, and tight corduroy pants. The film’s women are decked out in miniskirts and mod check, and Emma Thompson, playing a small role as Young Carl’s mother, appears with a bouffant and a houndstooth-patterned cape. The fact that this sort of apparel is currently available in your nearest Urban Outfitters is likely not lost on the filmmakers. The movie features a great classic rock soundtrack—of course—and a nostalgically affectionate tribute to the swinging 60s’ sexual insouciance. Radio Rock’s broadcasts are juxtaposed with shots of listeners across the UK, twisting and jiving to the era’s best music. The film will have audiences resisting the urge to dance in their seats (or the aisles).
Aside from the lack of a true protagonist, a number of small story arcs fall a bit flat, and the film may be a bit long at over two hours. However, a hilarious cast, a few genuinely poignant moments, and a slightly silly but ultimately uplifting end save the plot from disaster. The brilliant cast and funny script make for a fine film that probably won’t enjoy the sort of release it deserves in America—which is unfortunate, since it’s exactly the kind of movie whose heart and ingenuity should trump trashy big budget disaster movies at the box office. Whether these characters DJ’d out of love for the music, or purely in rebellion against censorship of an unstoppable force, their adoration of the cause (and ultimately each other) manages to keep the movie triumphantly afloat.