Movies:Movie Reviews:Pirate Radio

Pirate Radio

Pirate Radio
Photo: © 2009 Focus Features LLC

Director(s): Richard Curtis

Writer(s): Richard Curtis

Cast: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy, Rhys Ifans, Nick Frost, Kenneth Branagh and Tom Sturridge

Reviewed by: Ian Evans on

Release Date(s)

Nov 13, 2009 - Wide

As Philip Seymour Hoffman’s DJ character, The Count, says, popular music has the ability to change minds, foment rebellion and fight the status quo. Released in Britain earlier this year under the title The Boat That Rocked, Pirate Radio has been edited by writer-director Richard Curtis to cut out about twenty minutes of the story. Since there isn’t much story to begin with, this would have been an easy feat.

In Pirate Radio, young Carl (Tom Sturridge) has been sent to spend some time with his godfather, Quentin (Bill Nighy), after being expelled from school. Quentin runs Radio Rock, a shipborne radio station anchored outside Britain’s territorial waters that broadcasts the rock’n‘roll that the BBC has shunted to the sidelines. Feeding a desire for music that the Beeb only plays for two hours a week, the station is terribly successful and the bane of politician Sir Alistair Dormandy’s existence. The huge audience and ad dollars have allowed Quentin to employ a ragtag band of DJ’s, each more eccentric than the next but none more passionate about the power of popular music than The Count, an American DJ played by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The Count’s status as the station’s top dog becomes threatened when the station celebrates the return of the stylish and charismatic DJ, Gavin, played to velvet-clad perfection by Rhys Ifans. However, that battle is cast aside when an even bigger battle faces the station: Sir Dormandy’s desire to clean the airwaves of “rock and roll filth” and outlaw the station with the assistance of the unfortunately named Twatt.

Concurrent with this plot is Carl’s dual quests of losing his virginity and finding his real father, but like most of the story in this film it takes a back seat to the colourful cast of characters. Richard Curtis, the man behind such hits as Four Wedding and a Funeral and Notting Hill, has always been able to create memorable characters and this ship is in danger of capsizing from the egos and eccentricities of its crew of misfits. Flight of the Conchords’ Rhys Darby plays a joking DJ unsure if any of his co-workers like him, Shaun of the Dead’s Nick Frost is a stocky, charismatic and sexually successful DJ, and Kenneth Branagh plays the oily politician with political points to score. Smaller roles are filled out by the likes of Tom Brooke, Katherine Parkinson, Chris O’Dowd, January Jones and Emma Thompson.

With a cast like that, it would be hard to pick a real star. One might think it would be Hoffman, Ifans or rising star Sturridge, but the real star of this film is the soundtrack. Roughly seventy songs make their way into the film in some form or other and each one, from mega-stars like The Who or The Rolling Stones or British acts like Lulu, get the audience’s toes tapping. The music immediately transports us to the time and space the story occupies and each tune seems to have been carefully selected like threads in a magical tapestry.

Pirate Radio, like a fluffy novelty song, will not change the world or make people fight an oppressive government. Unlike the ads currently running on TV, it’s not about “American deejay and a band of renegades [who] launched a radio station on the high seas and raided the air waves,” as the “pirate” stations were commercial enterprises launched to get around the government-run BBC’s control of the radio spectrum. So if you go looking for a revolution, lay down your arms. If you go for great tunes, some good laughs, and a very colourful cast of characters, then you’ve booked a voyage on the right ship.