In the 1960’s, Britain heavily restricted the broadcasting of rock and roll on their airwaves, ostensibly because the British government is comprised of squares. In response, DJs took to the North Sea in decrepit, ancient boats outfitted with broadcasting equipments and radio towers for the purpose of illegally transmitting radio signals across the country and allowing the people of the UK aural access to the genre-defining rock music of the decade; thus ensued an extended battle of wits between government suits and free-wheeling rebels battling against the tyranny of their elected officials and bring the stylings of the Rolling Stones, the Turtles, the Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, and many, many others to people who would otherwise be denied the fruits of their talents.
Therein lies the basic plot behind 2009’s ensemble comedy effort, Pirate Radio (titled The Boat That Rocked in the film’s place of production, the United Kingdom), a film based (allegedly) on a true story. Under harsh light– or even not-so-harsh light– this proves to be quite false, but the idea presented in the story is tantalizing and interesting enough that I can accept that the film finds its basis in reality even if it extrapolates from that point of origin greatly and shapeshifts into something a bit more fantastic. Unfortunately, that same word cannot be used to describe the film’s overall effect. Enjoyable in strings, Pirate Radio depicts our audience surrogate, Carl (Tom Sturridge), joining the crew of pirate radio ship Radio Rock at the behest of his mother. Carl has been expelled from school; she surmises that under the watchful eye of his godfather, Quentin (Bill Nighy), her young son will learn valuable life lessons and develop as a person. And of course, this is exactly what happens over the course of two hours, though most likely not in ways she might have anticipated. Carl meets the ships’s crew, a ragtag band of misfits ranging from the ship’s DJs (including, among others, Chris O’Dowd, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Nick Frost) to the various crew members, such as the ship’s lesbian cook, Felicity (Katherine Parkinson); in their care, Carl receives crash-courses in love and friendship (and treachery, in more ways than one), and expectedly learns much about the power of music from the DJs. This is his coming of age story.
Meanwhile, off-shore, the story is somewhat different. British government officials, discussing the relative legality of the actions of Radio Rock’s DJs (according to the film, they’ve broken no laws), agree to unleash Minister Allistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh, portraying a variation on Postmaster General Tony Benn, who served the position from ’64 to ’67 before becoming the Minister of Technology) upon the fun-loving, rowdy radio pirates. Once Dormandy and his assistant, whose name (much like Felicity’s sexual orientation) is something of a running gag, set their sights on Radio Rock, the movie shifts tone and becomes a story of a ragtag band of lovable screwballs and outsiders clashing with the forces of conservative conformity to preserve the ideals that the hold so dear.
And that’s exactly the problem with the film: Identity crisis. Pirate Radio, for all of its interest, cannot decide whether it wants to be about Radio Rock’s struggle to stay ahead of government attempts to shut them down or about Carl eventually blossoming into a mature young man (so to speak, given his company). Curtis seems much more interested in exploring Carl’s maturation process while dwelling with the Radio Rock’s crew– the vast majority of the film’s running time is spent on the boat with Carl as he interacts with the Count (Hoffman), a brash, unruly American DJ, Simon (O’Dowd), the good-natured and fragile breakfast DJ, and Dr. Dave (Frost), who splits his time between helping Carl lose his virginity and stealing the boy’s romantic opportunities right out from underneath his nose. There’s a “boys will be boys” vibe in these sections of the film as the DJs carouse with one another, discuss music, and occasionally engage in dares and contests like climbing the mast in their own marine variation on “chicken”. They celebrate Christmas together (though the day that the DJs and crew are allowed to receive “visitors”– fawning, adoring female fans– is more hallowed to them). It’s an odd family dynamic, but it works at times even if it’s not thoroughly examined.
The reason this element feels so inadequately treated lies largely in how the film leaves the boat to follow Branagh’s mainland storyline as his uptight official labors endlessly to make Radio Rock’s off-shore operation totally illegal. The real problem with his character is that Dormandy simultaneously doesn’t have enough time devoted to him that he’s fleshed out enough that he breaks out of the Snidely Whiplash template in which he’s born, and yet has just the right amount of development to make his presence feel pervasive throughout the film. The result is that his conflict with Radio Rock’s DJs feels dramatically superficial. We know Dormandy is a threat, certainly, but it’s hard to take him seriously even when he does occasionally gain the upper hand against our heroes. Branagh makes the character entertaining enough, but he either needed more material or much, much less.
It’s unfortunate that the script keeps the film feeling so stunted, because there’s so much in Pirate Radio worth loving. For one, there’s the soundtrack, which any lover of music can surely appreciate; how do you say no to a soundtrack that takes from Hendrix to Jeff Beck to the Kinks? And most of all, there are the performances. But maybe this isn’t a big surprise; a little Hoffman goes a long way to elevating a film, and while there really is just a little Hoffman here, he’s totally magnetic at all times, even when he’s just sitting quietly and observing from behind his magnificent, scruffy beard. Perhaps more than anyone else in the cast, Hoffman’s the Count truly reads as a DJ with his boisterous personality, though this is not to take anything away from the other cast members. Frost, in particular, steals a number of scenes with his comic timing– if his work in Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead wasn’t enough to convince you, Pirate Radio should solidly establish Frost as a bona fide funny man. Rhys Ifans also deserves mention for his appearance as a legendary DJ returning to the airwaves aboard the Radio Rock; he’s smooth, charming, and almost immediately at odds with Hoffman, for whom Ifan’s Gavin represents a threat to his dominance in the booth. As much as their internal tension isn’t played out enough, Ifans makes the character supremely entertaining in all his stylish decadence.
And maybe that’s enough; for the film’s general sense of slackness and limpness, Pirate Radio overall is an enjoyable effort. The experience is pleasing. Curtis instills the film with a sense of warmth, and even though it’s flawed, it’s undeniably inviting enough. Taking a step back from the picture, it’s easy to pick out its numerous imperfections, and it’s hard not to ponder what Pirate Radio could have been if Curtis had applied just a little more discipline to telling this story, but even with its marring, this is a film worth viewing if only just one time.