- Rated R
- Buy the BD
All photos © Universal Pictures
Reviewed by Will Harris
n England, the pirate radio station known as Radio Caroline is legendary, its broadcasts serving as a significant turning point in the history of rock and roll and ultimately inspiring broadcasters in the UK to increase the highly insufficient amount of rock music that was being played in the 1960s. As such, it’s no surprise that a film about the concept – even if it’s a work of fiction which plays off of an approximation of the actual facts – would be the sort of thing to quickly receive the green light from a British studio. Over there, the film was called “The Boat That Rocked,” because everyone there already knows that the phrase “pirate radio” partially originated because the stations broadcast from boats in the North Sea. The movie has received a new name here, however: “Pirate Radio,” a title which not only proves more descriptive of the subject matter for American audiences but also has the added benefit of making people say, “Ooh, pirates!”
Radio Rock is the film’s designated pirate radio station, and we’re introduced to the cast of DJs via Carl (Tom Sturridge), the godson of the station “manager,” Quentin (Bill Nighy). Tom’s a wide-eyed youth with a lousy track record in school, and Quentin feels obliged to help the lad learn the ways of the world by setting him up within Radio Rock’s floating headquarters. The records are being spun by a diverse collection of characters: the supersized and oversexed Dave (Nick Frost), guys with catchy handles like Midnight Mark (Tom Wisdom) and Smooth Bob (Ralph Brown), New Zealand nutjob Angus (Rhys Darby), and the station’s resident American, a man known simply as The Count (Philip Seymour Hoffman). It will not surprise you that, by film’s end, Carl has come of age in more ways than one, in no small part due to Quentin’s niece, Marianne (Talulah Riley), a name which gives the film license to break out a certain Leonard Cohen song.
What a perfect segue into discussing the soundtrack of “Pirate Radio,” which is just as fab as you’d expect from a film taking place in the mid-‘60s (even if licensing costs prevent the use of a certain foursome who defined British music). Writer/director Richard Curtis indulges his inclination for musical montages a few too many times in an attempt to show the disparate individuals who were listening to Radio Rock, but at least you can’t fault what’s playing in the background when he does.
As with most of Curtis’s work, there’s often a tendency for “Pirate Radio” to devolve to a point where you feel as though you’re watching less a proper film than a series of vignettes. This is good in the sense that the characters are sufficiently developed to leave you feeling as though you could practically expand them into a weekly TV series, but it often makes the proceedings feel a bit too sprawling. Consider that the original British cut of the film was almost a half-hour longer and you can absolutely understand the studio’s decision to offer a separate cut for the States.
The benefit of taking the fictional route is that Curtis has the option of offering a streamlined history of pirate radio, creating at least a slight sense of drama about the government’s attempts to shut down Radio Rock. As the villainous Sir Alistair Dormandy, Kenneth Branagh (sporting a stache) offers a hiss-worthy performance, constantly ordering around his aptly named assistant, Mr. Twatt (Jack Davenport), as he tries to sink the station, both metaphorically and literally. In the end, the movie’s far more about the camaraderie between the DJs and the love of music that’s shared between them and their listeners than it is about their struggle to stay on the air, but if nothing else, the conflict serves to set up the film’s ending, which is both undeniably schmaltzy yet thoroughly satisfying.
As Curtis’s films go, “Pirate Radio” isn’t quite up to the standards set by “Love, Actually,” but it’s a loving look back at the era of his youth, and perhaps more importantly, it serves as a reminder of a time when DJs had the power to speak from the heart and play whatever the hell they wanted. Boy, was that a long time ago…
Single-Disc Blu-Ray Review:
Universal may not have included the extended cut of the film that played in the U.K., but they’ve done the next best thing with over 45 minutes of deleted scenes, each one with its own introduction by director Richard Curtis. It’s easy to see why a lot of this stuff was cut from the U.S. release (it doesn’t have much to do with the main storyline), but there’s a lot of great material here that fans will enjoy. Several of the supporting characters are developed more, while a subplot involving a rival station is good for a few laughs. Rounding out the set is a lively audio commentary with Curtis, producer Hilary Bevan Jones, and co-stars Nick Frost and Chris O’Dowd, as well as a series of mini-featurettes where the cast and crew discuss everything from the music of the era to learning how to perform like real DJs.