Movie Review: Pirate Radio (The Boat That Rocked)

PirateRadioThumbby 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. • (1977 views)

Brad Nelson

About Brad Nelson

I like books, nature, politics, old movies, Ronald Reagan (you get sort of a three-fer with that one), and the founding ideals of this country. We are the Shining City on the Hill — or ought to be. However, our land has been poisoned by Utopian aspirations and feel-good bromides. Both have replaced wisdom and facts.
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8 Responses to Movie Review: Pirate Radio (The Boat That Rocked)

  1. CCWriter CCWriter says:

    I loved that movie.

    The premise isn’t actually all that fictional. Radio Caroline was the real-life alternative when the state-run media (BBC) didn’t care to play the popular music people wanted to hear. (There was also Radio Luxembourg.) Here’s some of the history:

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      That’s interesting, CC. I was kinda-sorta wondering while watching that movie if it was based, even remotely, on real events.

      • CCWriter CCWriter says:

        Oh, absolutely. A real-life example of what happens when the government goes too far in deciding what’s OK for people to consume. People will find creative ways of getting what they want, outside the system. To quote from the history:

        “Listening to historic recordings, the early programmes from Radio Caroline now sound bland, awkward and amateurish. But to the population, all day pop music radio was a revelation. No speeches, lectures, gardening tips or cookery suggestions. No ‘Woman’s Hour’ or ‘Listen With Mother.’ No music shows where massed banjo bands murdered current pop hits. By the autumn of 1964 Caroline had more listeners than the three BBC networks combined.”

        I daresay popular music wouldn’t be what it is today, if these officially outlawed stations hadn’t given airplay to up and coming artists who brought us what became known as the “British Invasion.” And if you’ve never heard the story of what the Beatles meant to young people growing up in the USSR–well, basically they kept minds free and hope alive.

        Today, Radio Caroline operates via satellite and is also streamed on the Internet. I’m listening to it even as I type these words.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          Yep. Sort of a democratization of the world via rock ’n’ roll. Given what I’ve heard my nephew listening to, I’m not so sure there won’t be a few countries trying to re-erect that iron curtain.

          Gosh, I like a little of just about everything. But one day my nephew came to me and needed to convert his songs to a different format because he had gotten a new phone. So I couldn’t help listening to some of these songs. And it was the most uncreative and annoying bunch of shit I had ever heard.

          Say what you will about the 60’s, but John Lennon, Bob Dylan, and many others had actual talent.

          • CCWriter CCWriter says:

            You know it.

            By the way, I never bought that Dylan was the property of the left either. He certainly didn’t. He is an artist and his message is whatever comes together in his head, period.

            When young Soviet-era Russians heard the Beatles’ music, they knew right away it was high quality stuff. So when the authorities started to denounce the Beatles and their music, the youth realized they were being lied to, and they resolved not to trust the state or anyone who parroted the party line about anything. They learned to trust themselves, their own response to the truth, and plain common sense.

            You can make a case that this was fundamentally what brought down Soviet statism–that as much as the key leaders of the West (Reagan, Thatcher, John Paul II) did the right things at the right time, they would have had nothing to work with if people on the other side of the iron curtain did not have the desire to be free.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              Ditto. And from reading the quite excellent book (maybe I can do a review on it) by Natan Sharansky titled “The Case for Democracy,” you learn that there was another hero to those trapped behind the Iron Curtain: Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson, Senator from Washington State. That’s back in the days when there were some Democrats who actually believed in America. Jackson was a Democrat in other ways (reflexive union support, etc.)

              But damned if this wasn’t a guy who instead of apologizing for his country, or bowing to Saudi princes as our Marxist-in-Chief did, he actually defended America and the principle of freedom. Sharansky credits both Reagan and Jackson as being the prime instruments for the easing of civil rights abuses in the Soviet Union. They did so because they tied any concessions we were willing to give the Soviet Union with how they treated their own people. No more of this touchy-feely libtard “detente” bullshit where just wishing for better relations was considered all that you need to do, to “dialogue,” wear “reset” buttons and all that kind of nonsense.

              Jackson and Reagan instead inserted a quite moral element into our foreign policy, something that nowadays seems to be a foreign notion to most of any political persuasion, including Paulbots, RINO Republicans, and Establishment Republicans. How far we have fallen.

              And perhaps Sharansky, if he ever puts out an updated version of his book, will give due credit to The Beatles. Ya never know.

  2. Madhatton says:

    We American teens living in Europe , our Dads militarily stationed there , LIVED on Radio Lux. AFN , Armed Forces Radio , had good country music and sports coverage , But the second question teens asked new arrivals was , ” Didcha bring any new records?”. There was a 6 month lag in new stuff making it over the pond. And records were what we played in those dark ages ..

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      All these stories are giving me flashbacks to the sixties. I wasn’t quite old enough to be a child of the 60’s, but I had an older brother and sister. My first introduction to “pirate” or “subversive” music (so some thought…can’t say they were completely wrong) was on an old plastic red-and-white transistor radio/record player that my older brother had.

      The main radio station back then was KJR AM in Seattle. One of the long-time personalities in the area (and long-time DJ at KJR) is Pat O’Day, a name that won’t mean much to anyone unless you live in the northwest, I suspect.

      So my first exposure to pop music was on that little plastic box that could also play 45’s. This is where I first heard of The Beatles (of course), The Monkees, Herman’s Hermits. The whole pirate gang.

      One of my favorite parts of this movie was Bill Nighy. I became a big fan of his when I first saw him in the squishy (but still good) film, “Love Actually.” Who can forget that opening sequence when the aging star, Billy Mack, is recording a Christmas version of his old hit song and keeps screwing it up? Classic. A bit of a language alert for that link.

      And then Nighy plays a completely different role in “Underworld,” another one of my favorites. Actors tend to dislike being typecast. But now whenever I see Bill Nighy, I hear that damn Christmas song of his in my head. Love it.

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