November 13, 2009 / by Blake Fehl
This is the second time Richard Curtis is directing a film, but you’d be surprised at what he has been involved with. He has worked as writer or producer (on some both) on such films as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and Love Actually. His directorial debut was Love Actually, and he weaved an ensemble cast so well that it remains one of my underrated favorites. Well, this is his first time back in the director’s chair since that film in 2003. Once again he is back with an ensemble cast, and while it doesn’t quite capture the magic of his previous turn behind the camera, it contains enough ups and downs to keep you entertained.
The history behind the movie might be a bit perverted, and it might upset many that it is not based on a true series of events. However, it was true that Great Britain had an era in the 1960s where there were no licensed radio broadcasters other than government run BBC. Offshore radio stations became popular, and gave the citizens rock music. In the film, ‘Radio Rock’ is said to reach 25 million listeners, and the DJs are almost as big as the artists that they spin. Young Carl (Tom Sturridge) is sent to stay with the ship’s captain and his godfather, Quentin (Bill Nighy), to set his life back on track after he has been expelled from school.
The boat is filled with only men with one exception, the cook Felicity (Katherine Parkinson) is allowed due to the fact she is a lesbian, all of which have unique and interesting personalities. They consist of an American named The Count (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), doughy but suave Dave (Nick Frost), guillable and sweet Simon (Chris O’Dowd), and last but not least “King of the Airwaves” Gavin (Rhys Ifans). Carl will eventually count them as friends and family. Although, troubled waters are approaching the crew out at sea as the government has turned its eyes on pirate radio. A government minister (Kenneth Branagh) and his right hand man, Twatt (Jack Davenport) are out to takedown the pirate crew at any cost, no matter how popular it is among the people.
There is a lot of characters to keep track of, but not nearly as much story as you would think. All the characters are so diverse that none of them seem to blend together. Sure, there are some standouts, but most of all the cast seems to play well off of each other. The comedic timing of much of the cast is mesmerizing, and creates for one hell of an experience. You can easily forget the drawbacks of some of the botched history and sloppy storytelling when you are having so much fun. Bill Nighy isn’t featured in the movie as much as the trailer would suggest, but he steals every scene he is in. Nick Frost proves once again he is the funniest actor that most Americans (except Shaun of the Dead fans) don’t know about yet. Tom Sturridge is reduced to the straight man for most of the picture, so unfortunately he doesn’t get to collect as many laughs as the rest of the crew. I’m not sure I really buy into him being the “bad boy” type, because throughout the course of the entire film he is just too damn nice. Fans of the BBC show The IT Crowd will love seeing its two leads (Chris O’Dowd and Katherine Parkinson) in different roles. O’Dowd has that affable everyman quality that makes him one of the most relateable characters in the film.
The true star of this film is its music. 60 songs are used in this movie and all of them are classics. The Kinks, Jimmy Hendrix, The Beach Boys, The Who, etc. they are all here. There are even people like Otis Redding thrown into the mix. If you are a fan of music, and especially that era, there is no way you can’t love this film. Sure, you’ve seen it before, the film that takes place in that era and uses all kinds of music. Not like this you haven’t. I kept wondering what the licensing rights for this film must have been like. Each of these songs belongs where it was put, blaring out at a happy audience.
If you are a 60s buff, love British culture, or just love music this film is going to give you an enjoyable ride. There are lots of laughs to be had for people who go see this film. It was an unexpected surprise for me. It might get slow at some parts for people (much of the government side of the film is slow), but it has some great quotes and even better music.
Another Take By Zac:
Richard Curtis’ silly, random, and plot-less ode to rock n’ roll, comedy easily overcomes any of its own short comings by having a knock out cast and a number of good laughs along the way.
Back in the sixties when British rock was at an all time high, the British government didn’t allow the music to be broadcast over the radio. To counter act this a number of rebel sects launched pirate radio stations that broadcast from the North Sea evading laws and circumventing the bans by the government controlled stations. Our focus is on a boat/station Radio Rock that is full of interesting characters/DJ’s that allow for some weird and wacky fun to unfold over the course of the film. The problem that some people will find with the film though is its lack of any real structure or plot. If you can look past this, which isn’t too hard to do, then you will find plenty of fun to be had along the way.
Plots that pop up are a mystery around a young crew member’s father, many ups and downs of the sexual escapades, a wedding, and many moments of getting to know these characters better by watching them interact and goof around with each other. The film rolls through the course of a year over the two hour film and we jump around weeks at a time on the boat and while the crew’s only mission is to spread the gospel of rock and roll we stop and pause to get a look at some of their finer moments. From attempts to de-virgin a crew member, games of Delinquents, and an elaborate game of chicken between rival DJ’s, nothing really happens of consequence but remains a blast to watch. The closest thing to a plot in the film is the impending closure of the pirate radio stations by the government spear headed by a government official who tries everything to make their actions illegal to stop their poisoning of their countries youth.
The film does fall a bit flat on occasion and is almost ridiculously convenient and over the top with its good nature, but it never hurts to have a movie with exuberant good spirits I guess; they could have made this one hell of a tragedy though. The soundtrack is also top notch from start to finish, though oddly missing The Beatles, but you will recognize every hit they blare through the radio and they do some cute and clever cues to correspond with the action on screen.
The cast is also wonderful with a largely British cast of faces that you will probably recognize and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the American face on the boat. Hoffman is not at all the lead of the film, as it is a true ensemble piece but he brings his usual excellence to the loud mouthed and crude Count. Bill Nighy is also great as the owner/captain figure on the ship and is as cool as cucumber and getting to have fun instead of playing a grouchy villain as he usually is cast as. Rhys Darby, or Murray from Flight of the Conchords, has his second successive supporting role spouting off hilarity every time he opens his mouth. Nick Frost is fun as the sexual smooth talker Dave and has a number of quality lines sprinkled through out. Kenneth Branagh and Jack Davenport are a lively combo that keep the off ship action just as funny and silly while disguised as the silly section of the film. And the rest of the crew shines as well, without a weak link in the bunch, I just wish there was more January Jones!
In the end, Pirate Radio is a fun comedy that rarely misses a beat and never drops a joke. While there might not be a plot or cohesive story, the characters and hi-jinks they get into are way to fun to not enjoy and will have you forgiving the occasional slow spot that crops up here or there. If you like the British, rock n’ roll, or Phillip Seymour Hoffman than this one shouldn’t be missed.
Pirate Radio is a B+
P.S. This film was released in England at a running time of about twenty minutes longer and was called The Boat That Rocked for any of you that seem to have thought they saw something about this before under a different name.