What PIRATE RADIO does that is so remarkable is to capture as closely as a film can what it was like to be a fan of rock & roll at a time when it was considered not just noise, but actual subversion. Of course, in a way it was. This music was the anthem of the counter-culture and so when the establishment looked at it with baleful eye and fingers plugged firmly in its ears, it was more than a question of taste, it was an attempt to stem the tide of change. In Great Britain, where this tale unfolds, the government had all but banished it from the official airwaves, allotting less than an hour a week to that music during, the film posits, the single greatest era of British pop and rock. That didn’t stop it from filling the airwaves, broadcast from ships anchored just outside British territorial waters and listened to by an audience made up of half the listening public.
Writer/director Richard Curtis sets his film squarely in both camps. The government, in the person of Sir Alistair Dormandy (Kenneth Branagh), a prig whose Freudian slips belie the conservative agenda he champions, dislikes the music on principle, and delights observing that the wonderful thing about being in power is that you can make something you don’t like illegal. The which he sets out to do with the assistance of an ambitious aide with the provocative, and not entirely un descriptive, name of Twatt (Jack Davenport). The rebels are the denizens of Radio Rock, one of the pirate radio ships that are the bane of Dormandy’s existence. And here, in a fine story arc realized with wry dialogue and sharp insights, is a précis on the struggle between government for control of a culture that is changing. Though this particular story is set in 1966, the foregone conclusion about what is going to happen has more than a few correlations to the present, and probably the future for that matter.
Radio Rock is peopled by a wondrous collection of DJs and their engineers, assistants, and an owner all devoted to the spread of rock & roll and the attendant freedoms that it was bringing with it. It is to Curtis’ credit, and the actors he cast, that each of the 14 of them is sharply drawn and a distinct, three-dimensional character. The audience meets them all via Carl (Tom Sturridge) an 18-year-old newly expelled from school and sent to live on the ship by his glamorous and slightly scandalous mother in order to sort himself out. Radio Rock’s owner, Quentin (Bill Nighy), can’t imagine why this is a good idea, and, when told the reason for the expulsion was smoking, and not just tobacco, his reaction to offer Carl hearty congratulations.
In a nice mirror of the greater struggle between the government and the broadcaster, the story offers a different kind of competition between two of the DJs on board. The Count de Cool (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the rumpled American, and Gavin (Rhys Ifans), the dandified Brit with attitude and the talent on the air to back it up. Their escalating rivalry evolves into bodily injury, as competition in a highly charged atmosphere of strong personalities trapped 24/7 on a ship in the middle of nowhere might be expected to evolve. It also offers the chance for Hoffman to give another in a series of masterful performances, this time exuding a state of cowboy cool that is zen-like and transcends the mere mortal affliction of fear. Ifans cool is more cocky, but no less solid. The only real competition in the cool department is Mark, the midnight DJ and the sexiest man on earth, whose cool derives from an odd lack of speech, even on the air, and Quentin, whose languidness is just short of an arch entropy. The rest of them are various incarnations of nerdiness, from Dawntreader Bob and his hermit-like existence, to Doctor Dave (Nick Frost), the unlikely and beefy ladies man, to Angus (Rhys Darby), the corny jokester, to Simple Simon (Chris O’Dowd), the sweet one with a big, innocent heart, to Felicity (Katharine Parkinson), the bubbly lesbian who is becoming increasingly alarmed by her burgeoning sexual appetites. Even a character as seemingly one-dimensional as Thick Kevin (Tom Brooke) so named for his inability to think clearly, is shown to think differently as much as dully.
During the running time, Carl attempts to lose his virginity, the government attempts to stop the music, and people living in close quarters get on each others nerves, sometimes on purpose.
PIRATE RADIO looks at the cold comfort of milk tea and chocolate cookies after a heartbreak, male posturing of many types, and the bittersweet knowledge that the times you are living in may be the best of your life. Throughout, and to the beat of soundtrack that proves the point of why this music was feared and adored, it revels in the giddy delight of a time when all the old rules were questioned, if not thrown out, in the face of a new social order.