“Pirate Radio” rocks the boat

By Matthew M. Robare

Rock on, no matter what. That’s the message of “Pirate Radio,” a nice little imported comedy that flopped in the UK under the name “The Boat that Rocked.” It was written and directed by Richard Curtis. The film “stars” Philip Seymour Hoffman as an American DJ called The Count, Bill Nighy as British manager Quentin and Kenneth Branagh as a government minister named Sir Alistair Dormandy.

The plot is simple. The year is 1966 and no legal British radio station is allowed to play rock n’ roll, so pirate radio stations have sprung up. They are housed on boats anchored off the coast and occupy a legal gray area. The government, however, is against rock n’ roll and Sir Alistair is assigned to figure out a way to shut down the pirate radio stations, leading the station Radio Rock to attempt various ways to, ahem, stay afloat.

The Radio Rock ship is populated by several characters, most of whom are DJ’s and the others whose jobs are never specified. In addition to the Count, the other DJ’s are Angus (Rhys Darby), Dave (Nick Frost), Bob (Ralph Brown), Simon (Chris O’Dowd) and Mark (Tom Wisdom). The ship is populated by John (Will Adamsdale) as a newsreader, “Thick” Kevin (Tom Brooke), Quentin, the lesbian cook, Felicity, and the viewpoint character, Carl.

The movie is an ensemble comedy and it suffered from being edited down, as it tries to get to jokes and gags as quickly as possible. But as an ensemble piece, most of the comedy is dependent on having strongly developed characters. Because twenty minutes of the film have been taken out, we miss a lot of the development. A perfect example of this occurs fairly early in the movie when Gavin (Rhys Ifans), a DJ who had left for more money in America returns to Radio Rock, setting up a rivalry between him and The Count. But apart from a cold reception to Gavin by The Count, we don’t even get any interaction between them from that scene until a later one where The Count challenges Gavin to a game of “chicken” that involves climbing the mast and jumping into the North Sea.

As a period movie, it is amazing. The costumes and hairstyles are wonderful and in some scenes provide a stark contrast between the dour conservativeness of the government with the ongoing sexual revolution. Remember, in 1966 The Beatles were still together and The Who and The Rolling Stones still had their original line-ups (Keith Moon died in the 70’s and Brian Jones died in 1969).

The greatest thing about Pirate Radio is the music. Nothing beats classic rock. The Who, The Kinks, The Turtles, Jimi Hendrix and The Beach Boys all have songs. The music is simply awesome. It’s a great introduction to some of the greatest music in history, or a nice trip down nostalgia lane for those who are already familiar with it.

On the other hand, the comedy isn’t so hot. Pirate Radio’s comedic aspirations fall short as it seems that it doesn’t know what kind of comedy it wants to be. Some of the plots seem more screwball, some more slapstick. Is Pirate Radio News Radio at sea or Seinfeld in a pirate radio station? The funniest parts of the movie involve interactions between the characters—specifically, how their quirks and goals conflict with the reality of being at sea and in close proximity to one another all the time. For instance, Bob is your stereotypical stoner DJ. He loves the Grateful Dead and other kinds of music like that and looks a lot like John Lennon would in the late 70’s.

In one scene late in the movie, the ship takes on water and Bob is only able to rescue one record. Dave throws it into the ocean with the comment, “That’s a terrible record.” But the movie doesn’t stick to that kind of humor and suffers for it.

It’s a good movie, but it has its faults. It’s worth going to see once in theaters, but certainly not twice.

Matt Robare can be reached at [email protected]