by Brad Nelson
There were two opposing forces in this movie: British quirky and cultural stupid. In the end, it was British quirky (with the help of a boat load of great music) that won out. But this film starts off trying way too hard to show “Gee, aren’t we all the coolest people who are just so darn fun-loving and hip?”
Okay, we get it. The 60’s was the time of freedom, of breaking away from constraints, of being able to do tremendously important things such as drop f-bombs on the radio. (One of the funniest moments of the movie involves this, actually.) When watching this movie, it’s not always smooth sailing. The 60’s, despite all the “freedom” trappings, was often little more than glorified juvenilism.
Luckily the movie doesn’t devolve into Weekend at Bernie’s on a boat. It’s juvenile — even dumb at times — but one is eventually won over by the delightfully stupid charm of the many quirky DJ’s onboard the ship. Of note are the DJ’s “Thick Kevin,” “Doctor Dave,” and Bill Nighy as “Quentin” who is the head of this motley crew and who vaguely reprises his role of Billy Mack from “Love Actually.” Of particular note is Kenneth Branagh (didn’t recognize him, that’s for sure) who plays the marvelously square and repressive Sir Alistair Dormandy who has made it his life’s work to eradicate this band of pirate radio broadcasters in any way he can, accompanied by his top bureaucrat, Dominic Twatt.
The fictional premise of this movie is that rock-n-roll is banned from the legal airwaves in England so a renegade band of superstar DJ’s broadcasts off a large ship in international waters while millions of people in England surreptitiously listen in and have their normally staid and British-grey lives rocked. Such a thing is not without precedent. There was Radio Free Europe which broadcast news and other information behind the Communist iron curtain. And that’s vaguely what is going on here as England is being anally controlled by the Sir Alistair Domrandys of the world.
Where this movie could have been very good instead of just okay was if they had turned down the “Aren’t we just a bunch of cool, fun-loving guys?” to at least a Spinal Tap 8 on the scale and woven in some overarching themes. This movie needed to better connect with the people on shore whose lives their music changed and enriched. But all we ever see are quick-cuts of people listening and dancing to this pirate radio. It’s a bit superficial. A few intimate looks into a couple of these people’s lives would have been great because for a great many people (including today), music is not only an escape from the humdrum, it’s a way of life.
And certainly this way-of-life theme is captured for those onboard the ship in the guise of Ralph Brown as the DJ, “Bob Silver.” This quite human (and funny) portrayal of the true 60’s music enthusiast keeps this film from sailing off into utter vacuousness. We needed a bit more of him and less of the stilted and predictable performance of Philip Seymour Hoffman as “The Count,” although he has his moments.
Tom Sturridge plays the protagonist and lead character, Little Carl, a young man sent to this boat by his mother because of his misbehavior at school. As is noted in the film, this boat is the last place you’d send someone for punishment and discipline, so you figure something is up. Little Carl, much like Bob Silver, helps to anchor this film in humanity and keep it from completely turning into a Saturday Night Live Sketch (or Benny Hill sketch) that has run on too long.
Filled with 60’s sentimentality which often crosses over to the saccharine, “Pirate Radio” ultimately succeeds on its true quirky British humor and the great 60’s music that is wall-to-wall. But don’t go in expecting a totally coherent movie. It’s not. But it is entertaining. 2.9 Twatts out of 5. • (1861 views)